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Renters: How to make a winning repair request

Peter Miller
The Mortgage Reports contributor

In this article:

A repair request for a rented home or apartment is not the moment to be shy. Know your rights and how to make repair requests.

  • In most places, the landlord is responsible for keeping the home “habitable.”
  • The landlord has the right to inspect the place to make sure you’re not trashing it.
  • Unless it’s an emergency, you must request the repair from your landlord and not undertake it yourself.
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Landlords’ legal responsibilities

Homes and apartments are complex collections of pipes, wires, and equipment, so it’s not surprising that things can go wrong. The big question is what should be done, and by whom?

Let’s start out with the idea that landlords have repair responsibilities. Depending on where you live, these responsibilities may or may not be spelled out in writing. The general idea is that when you rent property, there is a “warranty of habitability.”

What happens if you break a lease?

“Most jurisdictions read residential leases to include an implied warranty of habitability,” explains Cornell Law School. “This warranty requires landlords to keep their property ‘habitable,’ even if the lease does specifically require them to make repairs.”

Inspections and your obligations

The landlord has a right to inspect the property to assure it’s being maintained in good condition. The landlord must generally give notice before entering the property. There are exceptions for emergencies.

Tenants are responsible for routine repairs, upkeep, and maintenance. Your obligations can change depending on whether you are renting a single-family home, townhouse, or detached property.

As a tenant, you have an obligation to maintain the property. A lease will generally provide that a landlord can charge for the cost of repairs up to a certain limit, say $75 per item per incident. Leases may also have a repair cost limit, say $500.

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Renters are responsible for repairs and replacements caused by tenant misuse or negligence. For example, dozens of small circular holes in a ceiling of one rental property, requiring repair. How did they get there? The tenant’s teen-aged son used a broom handle to poke holes in the ceiling. The landlord made the repairs and billed the tenant.

When you move out, the landlord may charge you for property damage which is not normal wear and tear. In some jurisdictions, the landlord may be required to offer you the opportunity to be present when the property is inspected.

Necessary repairs

So, pretty much, the landlord or the landlord’s agent has to make necessary repairs in most jurisdictions. But what repairs are those? Must the landlord replace light bulbs? To answer such questions, you need to look at the lease and local rules. Search for such terms in the lease as “repair,” “inspect,” and “maintenance.”

There are some repairs for which the landlord is plainly responsible. Think of major appliances, plumbing, electrical systems, and heating and air conditioning systems. Problems with such structural elements as the roof, floor and foundation are the owner’s responsibility.

However, not every imperfection is a landlord issue. “There are minor problems that a landlord is not required by law to fix,” explains FindLaw.com. “These minor problems may include things like dripping faucets, running toilets, small holes in carpet, grimy grout or torn window screens.

“Even though these problems may be annoying for you, the tenant, to live with, your landlord may not be under any obligation to repair these issues.”

Making a repair request the right way

When you see problems, you have to send a repair request to the landlord in writing. Again, there are exceptions in the event of an emergency. You generally cannot order repairs on your own. In almost all cases, you have to get written permission from the landlord.

You might want to skip the whole process and fix things yourself. However, that’s usually a no-no. For reasons of safety and insurance, the landlord will want licensed professionals to repair systems — especially those which involve plumbing, electrical, or gas.

You can find a sample of a written repair request here, courtesy of the Community Action Partnership.

Your deposit and a repair request

When you rent, you usually put up a deposit to cover your last month’s rent plus potential damages. Many leases include language which says the deposit may be kept by the landlord for unpaid rent or repair costs.

If your deposit is only equal to the last month’s rent, you cannot skip the final month’s rent payment. If you do that, no deposit funds are available for repairs.

A repair request need not be war

A rental unit is a big and expensive asset to a landlord. It is a source of landlord income, and may eventually be sold for a profit. It is usually very much in the landlord’s interest to maintain the property and make the repairs you request.

And ignoring the law is risky and costly for landlords. In fact, Findlaw warns that “When a landlord fails to make the necessary repairs or maintenance after receiving a request from a tenant, there could be a number of consequences. First, depending on your state’s laws, your tenant could elect to withhold all rent until the repair is made adequately.”

The best way to make a repair request is to have a good relationship with the landlord. If you have been paying rent in full and on time, and if you have been maintaining the property, a repair request is not likely to be an issue. But if it becomes one, knowing your tenant rights is key.

Verify your new rate (Feb 22nd, 2019)