How to Fulfill Your Maintenance and Safety Obligations as a Landlord

Your rights as a landlord are based upon your rental contract and your state’s landlord-tenant laws. Your obligations, however, are primarily in the form of written laws or implied warranties and covenants (agreements).

Recognizing your duty to maintain habitable living conditions

According to the implied warranty of habitability, you must provide residents with dwellings that are fit to live in. For example, the unit’s plumbing and electrical must be in working condition, residents must have running water and reasonable amounts of hot water, the unit must be heated in the winter, common areas must be clean and sanitary, and you must exterminate infestations of rodents and vermin.

If you fail to maintain habitable living conditions, residents may be permitted by law to withhold rent, have the repairs done and bill you for them, sue for damages, take legal action to force you to solve the problems, or move and terminate the lease.

Addressing potentially dangerous conditions

Accidents happen regardless of how careful people are, but if anyone is injured on your property as a result of something you did or neglected to do, you could be held liable for the person’s medical bills and lost pay and may even be subject to punitive damages. Here are a few areas to consider focusing your safety program on:

  • Fire safety: Educate residents on the most common fire hazards, provide and maintain fire extinguishers and smoke detectors, and provide residents with a copy of your evacuation procedures. Your local fire department can help you comply with the fire-safety codes in your area. Carbon monoxide detectors are also important if you have gas appliances and are now required in some jurisdictions.

  • Pool and hot tub safety: If you have a pool or hot tub, enclose it with fencing and gates that comply with your local building codes, and post required signage to inform residents and their guests of your rules, such as no diving allowed and adult supervision required for children.

  • Exterior lighting: Make sure parking lots, stairways, walkways, and entryways have adequate lighting.

  • Safety within units: Use safety or tempered glass in shower stalls or tub surrounds, use window coverings that have safe cords, make sure all windows have working locks and screens, use outlets with ground fault protection near water.

  • General maintenance issues: Fix any loose railings, stairs, or handrails; repair uneven pavement in sidewalks and parking lots; replace burnt-out exterior lights; and so on. Shovel and de-ice walkways in the winter. Make sure that you immediately mop up any spills and that you place signs to warn residents when floors are wet/slippery.

  • Set and enforce pet policies: If you allow pets, make sure your residents comply with local leash laws, at the very least.

  • Construction site safety: Make sure contractors secure their construction sites to prevent injuries to curious children and adults.

Team up with residents to improve safety. Encourage them to report any safety concerns to you, and respond immediately to their concerns.

Disclosing and responding to environmental hazards

We define environmental hazard as anything that may adversely affect a person’s health, including the following:

  • Asbestos

  • Carbon monoxide

  • Formaldehyde

  • Radon

  • Lead paint

  • Toxic mold

  • Hazardous wastes, including chemical residue from meth labs

  • Pests, including rats, mice, roaches, and bedbugs

Each of these hazards has specific laws regarding the landlord’s obligation to disclose and address.

Protecting residents and workers from criminal activity

Landlords are legally obligated to take reasonable steps to prevent crime on their property, which is a job that’s more challenging than most landlords realize. If a crime occurs on your property and the courts find that you could have, should have, and didn’t take measures to prevent it, you may be held liable for any injuries or property losses that result.

Here are several of your primary responsibilities for protecting residents and workers from criminal acts:

  • Provide and maintain basic security features, including doors with deadbolt locks and peepholes for rental units, key locks, or keyless for external doors, windows with working latches and insect screens, and sufficient security lighting.

  • Report suspected criminal activity to local law enforcement and inform residents of any significant criminal activity in the area that comes to your attention.

  • Evict residents who commit crimes, within a certain number of days of being notified by local law enforcement.

  • Safeguard sensitive resident information to prevent identity theft and other crimes.

  • Secure master and duplicate keys to prevent unauthorized entry to rental units. This also applies to common areas if they’re access controlled and to the extent that it’s reasonably feasible.

  • Conduct criminal background checks on prospective employees and monitor employee activity for any signs of criminal activity.

Team up with local law enforcement agencies. Many law enforcement agencies have pamphlets or booklets, with valuable guidance on how to secure rental properties.

Knowing the limitations on your right to enter the premises

You do have a right to enter rental units you own, but your right of entry is balanced against the covenant of quiet enjoyment that gives a resident the right to undisturbed use of the property

In most states, a landlord can enter a residence only under certain conditions, some of which require the landlord to give reasonable advanced notice, and some that don’t:

  • You can legally enter a rental unit without notice to respond to an emergency that threatens life or property, when a resident has abandoned the property, when responding to a court order, or when you ask for and a resident gives you permission to enter.

  • You can legally enter a rental unit with reasonable notice to check smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors, inspect for and make necessary repairs, check for problems during a resident’s extended absence, or show the property to a prospective renter, buyer, or lender.

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