Landlords aren’t just responsible for providing a roof and four walls to their tenants. They’re also responsible for ensuring that their properties are safe, clean, and have livable conditions for their tenants.
To help protect the landlord from legal action—and the tenant from unsafe living conditions—landlord-tenant laws require that landlords ensure a “warranty of habitability,” which is a guarantee that requires landlords to keep their properties habitable. Otherwise, tenants can sue landlords for unsafe living conditions.
That said, there are more benefits to keeping a rental property in good repair than just avoiding a costly lawsuit. Providing a comfortable, safe rental unit also helps attract good tenants who are more likely to look after the place and pay monthly rent on time.
So what are the unsafe conditions that could get you into legal trouble? What can make an apartment or property uninhabitable? And, are you responsible for all repairs to the rental property to keep it habitable? We have the answers to these questions below.
What does uninhabitable mean?
Uninhabitable is when the living conditions in the rental unit are dangerous and make it unfit for habitation. These dangerous conditions could cause injury or pose a risk to the tenant’s health or life. A unit can be deemed uninhabitable unit may by numerous conditions, from faulty wiring to a lack of essential utilities, pest infestation, lead-based paint, or having no waste disposal.
However, offering habitable conditions to tenants doesn’t equate to offering luxury accommodations or the latest kitchen appliances. The property offering habitable conditions simply means that there are no dangerous conditions associated with the property. For example, it means there is nothing wrong if the gas stove, even if it is outdated. However, having a gas leak or a broken stove would render the rental unit uninhabitable.
Determining whether the property issues are minor—and therefore not the landlord’s responsibility—or major—and therefore causing unlivable conditions that the landlord is responsible to fix—can be challenging. For example, the tenant may be frustrated that the furnace fan clanks and creaks or doors squeak, but these issues, while perhaps annoying, are minor and do not cause safety and habitability problems.
In other words, there is a difference between a leaking roof that’s causing mold on the wall to form and a small, temporary leak that caused a water stain on the ceiling. One is a health and safety issue that will affect the habitability of the home, and the other is a cosmetic issue that isn’t harmful to the tenant.
Unsafe living conditions that landlords must avoid
To help you determine whether an issue is going to affect the habitability of the property, let’s look at the top six conditions that can make a rental unit uninhabitable. These include:
1. Lack of essential utilities
Tenants have a right to essential utilities, like hot and cold water, electricity, and heating. As the landlord, you must ensure that repairs to the HVAC system, plumbing, and electrical installations are carried out in a prompt manner. Air conditioning is also part of the “warranty of habitability” in some regions where hot temperatures and scorching weather can be a health issue.
In addition to providing essential utilities, there may be state laws on minimum temperature requirements regarding room and hot water temperatures, so be sure to check your state laws regarding the issue.
2. Structural issues
It’s in a landlord’s interest to keep the rental property in good repair to protect their investment. However, a leaking roof, sagging ceiling, or severe damage to walls won’t just affect the property values. These types of issues also make a rental property an unsafe living environment for the tenant.
And, let’s say the damage to the apartment or unit is damaged due to a fire or flood. In that case, it’s the landlord’s responsibility to provide alternative accommodations for the tenant or tenants while the repairs take place.
Related: Landlord insurance must-haves
3. Rodent or pest infestation
Vermin, roaches, and disease-carrying bugs are not ideal—and can also make a rental property uninhabitable. While a spider scurrying across the floor is a minor issue, a bed bug infestation can render the property uninhabitable. Plus, pests like rats and roaches can carry diseases and pose a health risk to your tenants.
As such, the landlord has to call in the exterminators when these issues occur to get the property into habitable condition. This is a reason why many landlords carry out annual preventative pest control—and it’s to avoid dealing with an unexpected pest problem that can displace tenants. In turn, these emergency issues can end up being very costly for the property owner, so many landlords opt to deal with the pest problems preemptively.
However, the warranty of habitability doesn’t apply if the tenant is the source of the pest problems. For example, let’s suppose a tenant fails to take the garbage out. In turn, a problem with rats or roaches develops. In that case, the tenant may be required to pay for pest control, as they were the cause of the issue.
4. Potential hazards
For a rental unit to be considered habitable, it must also be free from any type of chemical or environmental hazard. The most common hazardous materials found in properties are lead-based paint, asbestos, and mold.
In many states, landlords must provide a lead paint disclosure about buildings built before 1978 that disclose the presence of any known lead-based paint used in the home. That’s because it was common to use lead-based paint in homes built before 1978—and the tenant has a right to know whether these potential hazards are in the home.
Lead from paint, paint chips, and dust can pose health hazards if not managed properly, and it can be especially harmful to young children and pregnant women. Landlords with properties built before 1978 are therefore required to also give tenants a federally-approved pamphlet on lead poisoning prevention, and may also be required to ensure a unit is lead-free if a child under the age of six will be living there.
Landlords are also required to remedy mold issues within the property and resolve the condition that is causing the damp conditions in which the mold thrives. However, the level of mold that makes a rental unit uninhabitable is difficult to determine, as there are no regulations specific to unacceptable mold levels.
5. Ignoring state and local health building codes
There are federal and state laws that regulate the type of conditions tenants have the right to live in. For example, there could be room size requirements that dictate the minimum square footage required for each occupant. Most states also require that smoke and carbon monoxide detectors be installed and checked annually.
Plus, there are other codes you must adhere to as a landlord as well. Are there children under the ages of 10 living in the rental unit? If so, it may be your responsibility to fit window guards on the windows to ensure the safety of the children in your rental unit.
6. Lack of adequate security
Tenants have the right to expect to feel secure in the rental unit, which means that a unit being habitable includes the ability to adequately secure the property. To keep the property in a livable condition, you must repair locks and ensure windows can’t be easily opened from the outside. It is also crucial to change the locks when a new tenant moves in.
Are landlords responsible for all repairs?
While landlords are responsible for making repairs to the majority of the habitability issues with a unit, they aren’t responsible for all repairs. Tenants also have responsibilities.
For example, tenants must typically repair and pay for damage that they or their guests cause—even if it results in a habitability issue. It is also their responsibility is to inform you of any major repair or maintenance issues that need to be addressed. Keeping track of who is responsible for what can be tricky, though, which is why the rental agreement should state what type of minor repairs the tenant should care for.
And, it’s smart to remember that not all property defects are a landlord’s responsibility. For example, you don’t need to replace an old carpet or fix dirty grout in the bathroom if it’s not causing health or safety issues. Still, tenants may treat the rental unit with less respect if it appears rundown. By sorting out the minor cosmetic issues, you can usually find better tenants who will care for the place—which will likely be better for you in the long run.
When tenants can sue landlords for unsafe living conditions
It’s within a tenant’s right to sue their landlord if the landlord fails to provide inhabitable housing—but only under certain conditions.
To file a lawsuit, the problem must be serious enough to put the tenant’s safety and health at risk. Also, the tenant must inform the landlord of the problem and allow for a reasonable time frame for repairs. Individual state laws outline the minimum time frame by which landlords must remedy the issue, so the required timelines for repairs will vary based on where the property is located.
However, suing a landlord doesn’t have to be the default option for the tenant. In many cases, it’s within a tenant’s rights to withhold rent or repair the issue and deduct the amount from the rental payment. Plus, ignoring the warranty of habitability means that a tenant can move out before the end of the lease term because the landlord has breached the lease agreement—so lawsuits aren’t the only repercussion a landlord can face when there are habitability issues with a property.
Purchasing your first rental property is just the beginning of your real estate journey, because being a good landlord is almost as important as making good deals. BiggerPockets’ free guide How to Become a Landlord: Managing Rental Properties for Real Estate Investors will teach you everything—from setting rent to handling evictions.
Tenants expect a rental property owner to keep the unit in good repair—and the law requires you to keep the property habitable and safe for your tenants. That’s why, as a landlord, it’s in your best interests to have a good maintenance schedule and promptly carry out major—and even minor—repairs. This will improve your reputation as a trusted landlord, and you reduce the risk of a tenant filing a complaint with the local housing authority.
Plus, regular maintenance and repairs help to keep your property values high and cut down on smaller issues turning into major issues over time. So, make sure to avoid any unsafe living conditions on your properties—both for the sake of your tenants and your wallet.