VOLUME 1RRepairs: Who Pays for What?By Juliana Torres-MasonNo matter how perfect a rental is, there are bound to be repairs. And for tenants, knowing who is responsible for mishaps, calamities, and wear and tear is a must. 

“The house is a handmade product,” said Joseph Ray Diosana, a Lead Associate Broker of Houston’s The Property Joes. “You just need the right trades that know how to repair it.”

Meanwhile tenants and landlords have rights as well as legal responsibilities when faced with a tricky repair bill on the rental property.

Landlord Repairs: The BasicsWhile the exact rules for property repairs vary across the country, landlords are always required to keep their units in a livable or habitable condition. Texas state law confirms that a landlord must make repairs if the problem is “materially affecting the physical health or safety of the ordinary tenant.” Usually, this involves making sure tenants have hot and cold water; the unit is heated and structurally sound; and free of pests.

Local ordinances will require landlords to keep the property up to code, outlining requirements for the building’s electrical wiring and plumbing, as well as issues such as asbestos, lead and mold.

Landlords can charge for the repair when the tenant is at fault. If there’s a pest issue due to the tenant’s negligence in taking out the garbage, for example, the landlord can pass on the extermination costs. However, property owners are responsible for repairs that involve the tenant’s safety and the regular wear and tear of the building.

Florida statutes require landlords to repair any damage to screens once a year until the lease is terminated. But amenities like air conditioning are not required, FloridaLawHelp.org explains, which means wear and tear on one purchased by tenants would be their responsibility (and theirs to keep).

The Role of the LeaseEven before tenants sign their leases, check the repair language on the rental agreement. It should give answers for potential gray areas such as procedures for notifying the landlord of needed repairs. It should also have clear language about any commitments to maintain the unit at a higher standard than the law requires, such as keeping a home air conditioned in Florida.

Diosana said landlords often use the lease to define a threshold for how expensive repairs should be before the owner gets involved.

“Landlords don’t want to change light bulbs,” he said. “There’s usually a minimum before the landlord goes out to a property.”

That minimum should include context in the lease regarding repair deductibles. Tenants may be informed that they’re required to pay the first $100 for repairs. This not only prevents tenants from calling the landlord about minor issues; it also may result in the tenant taking better care of the unit for at-fault issues.

The lease should also outline any damage that existed prior to the tenants’ arrival. Diosana, who represents tenants as well, said that he makes sure his clients provide their landlords an inventory of everything that needs to be repaired within three days of moving in.

“If I represent the buyer and the tenant, I’m definitely taking photos,” he said. “Normally, we capture the prior condition. If there’s a repair [and] the landlord is trying to charge the residents, they have a record. We can say, ‘The hole was there a year ago, I’m not paying for that.’”

When Diosana is working with property owners, the inventory provides the starting point for determining what repairs the tenants are responsible for as they move out.
“If they don’t provide it, then we’re going to charge it,” Diosana said.

The lease can state whether the landlord intends to make any repairs or updates to the property. Landlords can be held legally responsible for repairs they’ve promised to make within the lease.

The Tenants’ ResponsibilitiesThe lease should include a list of maintenance needs that are the responsibility of the tenant, including trash removal and regular lawn care. If the tenants are in direct violation of their lease, any resulting damages fall to them.

In most states, landlords aren’t responsible for any damage directly caused by the tenants or their guests—whether it’s in the lease or not. For example, the landlord could charge for a tenant’s cat tearing up a window screen or cigarette burns in the carpet of a smoke-free home.

If a needed repair is the landlord’s responsibility, tenants are required to notify the landlord of the damage in a timely manner. Failure to do so might mean the repairs ultimately fall on the tenants’ shoulders, especially if the damages become worse as time goes on.

In Texas, before a landlord is required to make any repairs, tenants must be current on their rent and report the problem to the person or place where they normally pay their rent.

Understanding the Process of Repair RequestsOften, landlords will have a process in place for tenants to report repairs that need their attention. If the process is not defined in the lease, outlined in a welcome packet or explained at the beginning of their lease term, tenants should ask for that information to be provided in writing. By law, communication between landlords and tenants must be in writing, either hand-delivered or mailed.

When a repair is needed, tenants should submit a maintenance request in writing. That written maintenance request provides tenants with documentation of the issue in case the landlord isn’t responsive to requests. The landlord might have an automated system that records requests or a specific place where requests need to be filed. Tenants should keep a copy of any submitted requests.

If landlords manage multiple properties, they may hire or outsource a property management team of certified specialists. If there isn’t a property maintenance team in place, tenants should not hire their own repair workers without first consulting their landlords. Diosana recommends landlords vet any professionals hired to repair large-scale work themselves rather than relying on the tenants to make the decision.

According to him, a botched job could cost more in the long run. Further, tenants could be liable for any unintentional damage. With that said, sometimes the fix is easy and can be done by the tenants themselves.

Permission to Enter: When Repair Work Requires Emergency AccessAfter tenants have submitted requests for larger repairs, they should expect a response from the landlord or the maintenance team charged with caring for the property.

Texas state law is silent on when the landlord can enter a rented property and under what circumstances. However, the lease may outline if the landlord is required to give notice before arriving if the tenant has asked for repairs. If the lease does not list reasons for the landlord to enter a property, one of the limited reasons to enter without notice is when the tenant has requested repairs.

In Florida, the landlord “may enter the rental unit at any time for the protection or preservation of the premises,” the state explains. The landlord should give reasonable notice, defined as 12 hours prior to arrival and come at a reasonable time between 7:30 a.m. and 8 p.m.

When Landlords Won’t Make RepairsWhen landlords ignore their responsibility for the repair, state and local laws will dictate the tenants’ options. These options may include legally breaking the lease and moving out, deducting the cost of the repair from monthly rent, withholding rental payments until repairs are made, or suing the landlord.

It’s important for tenants to understand what options their state laws give them if the landlord refuses to make needed repairs.

Texas state property law gives landlords seven days from the time they receive the notice as a “reasonable” timeframe for them to make the required repairs. However, the law allows for emergency repairs or the scarcity of required materials to change what is considered reasonable.

If the repairs are not made, Texan tenants are legally allowed to send a second notice notifying the landlord of their intention to deduct the cost of the repair from their rent. The deduction can cost a total of one month of rent or $500, whichever is greater. However, deducting the cost of the repairs or terminating the lease early are both legally complicated. An attorney may be needed if the landlord pushes back.

In Florida, landlords have seven days after a tenant provides written notice to start making the repairs if they are required to do so. After that, tenants can withhold rental payments until the landlord makes the repairs. Withholding rent is different from deducting the cost of repairs, however. Florida law requires tenants to pay the withheld rent as soon as the landlord repairs the damage.

If the repairs aren’t made in a reasonable amount of time, Floridian tenants are allowed to break the lease, move out and keep the withheld rent.

Tenants who fully understand the process for repairs beforehand will be prepared when their rentals need attention. Above all, good communication with the landlord will help to make sure the home is always in working order.