Tenant plumbing damage - who is responsible?

6 Replies

Hello all,

I have some tenants who recently clogged the upstairs toilet. In the process they broke the flushing handle and they had an overflow where the water flowed through the ceiling and caused some damage in the ceiling below. We had a plumber come out and their are no leaks or other plumbing issues other than the broken handle on the toilet. This is not the first time these tenants have caused issues with the upstairs plumbing and this is starting to get expensive. Given that they clogged the toilet and allowed the water to overflow which then leaked through the ceiling I believe the cost should be passed on to the tenant. I am in California and have a standard residential 1 year lease with these tenants. They have been good tenants overall but their use/abuse of the plumbing upstairs is getting expensive. 

 I am seeking advise on how to best handle this.


Send them a short, professional, objective letter notifying them the clog, broken handle, and water damage is due to their negligence and they are responsible for paying the bill. If they refuse, kick them out.

You're in the People's Republik of Kalifornia so a call to an attorney is advised.

Not sure about California but in AZ and MN I would let the tenants know that you are going to have these repairs done, explain to them what they've done wrong and why they will be held accountable for the repair costs. You may need to offer them a payment plan to make it a little easier for them which will make them a little more willing to comply.

I have never seen an overflow as the result of a broken handle ... but there's a first for everything.

The handle simply lifts the flap inside the tank to let the water down into the bowl and forces the water into the sewer drain.

A clog in the "S" trap part of the bowl usually will result in water filling the bowl. All bowl specs that I know of allow for the bowl itself to handle the full capacity of the tank. Meaning one flush should NEVER make a bowl overflow.

Here's the problem for most people. They flush... the waste isn't removed.. the bowl is filling up (showing there's a clog in the drain) but they think that flushing again will somehow unclog the drain line. This is where you may need to educate your tenants. 

Step one.. if the bowl isn't draining don't attempt to flush again. (perhaps pressing harder on the handle won't help either)

Step two ... if the bowl continues to fill with water the flap isn't closing on the tank.. the floater will keep the water running into the tank and into the toilet... to prevent this show them where the supply line shut off valve is on the toilet. (righty tighty lefty loosey) Show them how to turn the supply line off.

With the supply line shut off the bowl should stop filling and you will have no overflow issues. Tell them to wait 5-10 minutes and check back on the toilet... if the water/material has drained you still may have a partial clog ... if the water and material is still there you have a fully clogged drain. 

In either event... introduce them to a tool called a plunger and tell them to open the supply lines allow the bowl to fill, shut off the lines once again, and try unclogging the drain line. May have to try this two or three times.... otherwise call a plumber

@Jamie Powers

Yeah, I'm with @Steve S. on this one. A busted toilet handle does not cause Noah's Flood in the john. Plus that, a busted toilet tank lever costs about $10 to replace on a standard toilet. I would be deeply concerned about the overflow you're talking about being enough to cause damage to the ceiling downstairs. That means that overflow from the bowl is able to get through the floor above, the subfloor, drop down on the ceiling drywall, and damage the drywall enough for water to seep through to the visible side AND damage the paint from behind.

It seems much more likely that in the course of previous repairs the toilet was removed and put back in place and the plumber thought he got away with not doing the messy work of getting rid of the old wax seal and putting in a fresh wax seal Minor seepage from the unsealed connection and a plumber covering his hind parts seems a far more likely explanation for what you're describing.

Maybe you could take a picture of that ceiling? There's going to be a characteristic seepage pattern immediately under the bowl upstairs if what I'm describing is happening and a far more generalized, spread-out pattern if your plumber-guy isn't shining you on.

It's important to know what is defined in your lease agreement. Resident negligence should be factored in. This is a type of situation that should be backed up with service requests and proof of completion within a reasonable timeframe. You may not be able to charge them if the toilet handle "broke" due to "normal wear and tear", but at least having the proof that it was serviced and you educating them (in writing) on what to do should a toilet overflow again in the future (shut-off valve) could protect you from liability later on. This should also convey the repercussions of them not performing the actions necessary on their part to prevent damage to your property.

In my opinion this is a case of tenant negligence. The broken handle is a side issue. All this did was cause the chain to get caught in the flap leading to continuous water flow which then drains out. This did not cause the overflow from the toilet that led to the damage in the ceiling. They did have a clog and used a plunger to undo it but obviously they let a fair amount of water overflow and failed to clean it up in a timely manner and I am not sure if they used the shutoff valve which is readily visible. The tenants are elderly and I have a feeling they were unable or unaware of what had happened and the issue was not addressed in a timely manner. I am going to write them a brief polite letter and request they pay for the repairs. If they fight me on it the lease is up in 3-4 months and I will simply not renew it. I cannot keep eating these costs.