Tuesday, January 22, 2008

The Rental Game: What Are The Rules?

by M. Anthony Carr

What do you do when the dishwasher has spewed soapy water across the kitchen floor and leaked down on your neighbor below? Who's responsible? The landlord or the tenant? Across the country, tenant law differs as much as the geography. Nevertheless, some principles remain the same regardless of the local nuances of tenant and landlord rights. One of the first places to visit is the landlord/tenant area posted online by Cornell University's Law School.

Commonly speaking (because the biggest problem I find with legal websites is that they don't speak in such basic terms) there are certain rights reserved for the landlord and certain rights reserved for the tenant. Tenants, says Cornell, have "a property interest in the land...for a given period of time." The lease reflects the length of the landlord/tenant agreement and what the tenant is allowed to do with the property. "The lease," says Cornell, though not historically or strictly a contract, may be subject to concepts embodied in contract law."

"Basic to all leases is the implied covenant of quiet enjoyment. This covenant ensures the tenant that his possession will not be disturbed by someone with a superior legal title to the land including the landlord," according to the site. Now, I bring Cornell's Web site to the forefront as it is an official sounding, and at most of all, reputable place, for all of us to seek out what the law says. However, a site based in Cleveland puts the responsibilities of landlords and tenants into simple language.

NeighborhoodLink is a product of Levin College of Urban Affairs, a part of Cleveland State University. An easily navigable site with plenty of information on rental laws in Cleveland, the site also includes form letters for tenants who must deal with unresponsive landlords. (This is a very cool part of the site -- check it out.

Nevertheless, the lists of landlord and tenant duties found here give a simple approach to who's responsible for what in a lease agreement and are generally relevant across the country.

Here are a few sample landlord duties from the site:

  • Keep the premises fit and habitable.
  • Keep the common areas safe.
  • Comply with building, housing, health, and safety codes.
  • Keep all systems in good working order -- plumbing, electrical, heating, etc.
  • Maintain all required appliances and equipment.
  • Provide, in most cases, running water and reasonable amounts of hot water and heat.
  • Provide garbage cans and trash removal.
  • Give adequate notice, at least 24 hours in some jurisdictions, before entering a tenant's unit -- except in emergencies. Enter only at reasonable times.

And what about tenants? The school says that tenants have an obligation to:

  • Keep the premises safe and sanitary.
  • Dispose of rubbish in the proper manner.
  • Keep the plumbing fixtures as clean as their condition permits.
  • Use electrical and plumbing fixtures properly.
  • Comply with housing, health, and safety codes that apply to tenants.
  • Refrain from damaging the premises and keep guests from causing damage.
  • Maintain appliances supplied by the landlord in good working order.
  • Permit landlord to enter the dwelling unit if the request is reasonable and proper notice is given.
  • Comply with state or municipal drug laws in connection with the premises and require house-hold members and guests to do likewise.

Oh -- who is responsible for that leaky dishwasher? Most likely, the tenant has an obligation to limit the damage by shutting off the machine and drying the floor. The landlord who supplied the appliance should have it repaired or replaced as soon as possible.

Keep in mind, tenant laws differ by jurisdiction. For details regarding your area, speak with local realty brokers, attorneys, and housing offices.

For more information on real estate investing, resources and news, check out my Commonsense Real Estate Blog at http://commonsenserealestate.blogspot.com/.

Originally Published: May 4, 2001


Anonymous said...

So, who is responsible for the damage to the neighbor below? I am thinking that it is owned by a differnt landlord.


M. Anthony Carr said...

In many situations, it would be the condo owner's insurance from above. Sometimes it's the condo associaiton. In a co-op, it would most likely be the co-op policy that would pick it up.