Clogged pipes are just part of the rental business. They’re nasty, but unavoidable.
Preventing clogged pipes is part of the landlord’s responsibility to maintain the unit in habitable condition. The key word is “preventing”.
But hold on! What about the tenants who pour bacon fat down the kitchen sink or think nothing of flushing diapers?
Shouldn’t they have to share the cost?
Absolutely, but if you haven’t included a lease clause to cover plumbing stoppages, your responsibility to maintain the unit could put you on the hook for clogged pipes, toilet stoppages, and garbage disposal freeze-ups.
A properly worded clause will greatly reduce, if not eliminate, your responsibility to fix and pay for issues caused by your tenant.
A landlord must ensure the pipes work properly, but the tenant should be responsible for what goes down them.
1. Use a Plumbing Lease Clause
An effective plumbing clause (example) covers bathroom, kitchen, and laundry drains, as well as toilets and garbage disposals.
It limits the landlord’s liability for clogged pipes to only those caused by tree roots, mechanical failure, and other conditions beyond the tenant’s control.
Here are some things the clause should include:
- Avoid putting grease, stringy vegetables, starchy foods, or hard objects such as bones in the garbage disposal.
- Clean the laundry lint filters regularly. This includes the filters in the washer and the dryer.
- Remove hair from shower and sink drains regularly.
- Monitor what you flush down the toilet. Do not flush feminine hygiene products, diapers, or non-degradable objects such as cotton swabs or non-paper products.
Sample Lease Clause
Use this as a base, and consider adding in the suggestions above. Please have your attorney review this before you use it.
Plumbing and Drain Maintenance: Tenant shall keep all lavatories, sinks, toilets, and all other water and plumbing apparatus in good order and repair and shall use the same only for the purposes for which they were constructed. Tenant shall not allow any sweepings, rubbish, sand, rags, hair, ashes or other substances to be thrown or deposited therein. Any damage to any such apparatus, resulting from misuse, and the full cost of clearing stopped plumbing shall be borne by the Tenant(s). Any plumbing costs associated with snaking clogged sinks, toilets, showers, bathtubs, or drains will be incurred jointly by the Tenant(s).
2. Take the Plunge
Providing appropriate plumbing tools helps reinforce tenants’ lease requirements to handle minor problems themselves. Two tools top the short list, and both of them are plungers.
- Dome Plunger
A dome-shaped sink plunger should live in the kitchen or bathroom sink cabinet.
- Bell Plunger
A bell-shaped toilet plunger should occupy a prominent place in the bathroom.
Why two plungers? Hygienic issues aside, the two tools have different functions, and using either for a job for which it isn’t intended is an exercise in futility.
When properly used, however, a plunger can clear 95 percent of clogged pipes.
3. Use Snakes & Zip-Its
When a plunger won’t do the job, a drain auger usually does, and again, you need a pair of them — one for the toilet and one for sinks (don’t mix them up!)
The sink auger is optional, however, because the bulk of sink clogs are caused by hair that can be easily removed with a handy plastic hook-like implement called a Zip-It.
I suggest putting a Zip-It, which costs less than $3, in each sink cabinet as an alternative to providing a sink auger. It works great for clearing shower drains, too.
4. Skip the Harsh Drain Cleaner
Your drain cleaning resource kit does not need to contain strong chemical drain cleaners. Those that are strong enough to clear clogs you can’t loosen with a plunger or snake can damage pipes and cause additional leaks.
Filling pipes with a caustic or acidic chemical creates a hazard for anyone who has to disassemble them to remove a clog, and the chemicals can damage the waste system in general.
5. Call a Pro
No matter how specifically you word the lease and how thoroughly you equip tenants, clogs may still occur. When they do, tenants can be encouraged to take matters into their own hands — but only to a point.
Major problems — which are those that require disassembly of the pipes — are best left to pros, because Uncle Bob and his pipe wrench could easily make matters worse.
You’re a rare breed if you like to tackle plumbing problems yourself. Many landlords either have a dedicated maintenance pro, or they maintain a relationship with a local plumber.
Either way, it’s wise to include the pro’s name and number in the lease so your tenants don’t have to search for help.
6. Treat the Pipes Monthly
As an optional clause in your lease, you may wish to include a recommendation to treat the drains at least once a month with a mild enzyme-based drain cleaner to dissolve grease and keep the drains flowing.
Make it clear that the purpose of this drain treatment is to prevent clogs, not to clear existing ones.
7. Upgrade your Vent Pipes
You could equip the vent opening on the roof with a cap to prevent debris from falling into it because a blocked vent can quickly cause deep pipe clogs that your plumber will have to clear.
If the vent pipe is 2 inches in diameter, and you experience deep freezes in the winter, consider upgrading it to a 3-inch one to prevent ice blockages.
8. Don’t Skip the Septic Maintenance
If your property is in a rural area, you probably have a septic system. They require special care, and the details should be addressed in the lease.
In particular, the lease should require tenants to do the following:
- Avoid flushing non-biodegradable or bulky items.
- Monitor the pump alarm, if there is one, and call the landlord if it goes off. If the alarm is visual, the tenant must know where it is and what to look for.
- Avoid using septic tank additives. They aren’t effective and can cause more harm than good.
9. Consider Buying a Home Warranty
If you want to remove yourself completely the situation, consider buying a home warranty on the property. The warranty company will send a licensed technician within 24 hours to assess the situation and attempt to fix the problem. They usually charge a “deductible” to show up, which can range anywhere from $50-$150, but it can be an easy way to ensure that these issues don’t keep you up at night.
- The Ultimate Guide to Buying a Home Warranty for a Rental
- Don’t Charge a Maintenance Request Fee or Repair Deductible
10. Empower Tenants, Reduce Calls
Most tenants will perform basic plumbing maintenance willingly because it’s in their interest to keep the pipes open and the water flowing.
Set the conditions upon which they are allowed to attempt to fix the issue themselves, and put it in the lease. Be very clear that you don’t want them to pour harsh chemicals down the drain, especially if the pipes are old.
Specifying plumbing maintenance responsibilities in a lease clause is a good practice that can simplify a landlord’s life while empowering tenants to sweat the small stuff themselves.