You’ve just received a bill from a contractor. Only this bill was for a repair you didn’t authorize at your rental unit! Do you have to pay for unauthorized repairs?
The answer is “no,” under most circumstances. You typically don’t have to pay for unauthorized repairs. But … this situation can cause you plenty of problems.
What to Do
- Contact the vendor in writing, informing them that you’re the owner of the property and did not authorize the work.
- Call your tenant to find out why they had this work done without your approval. (In many jurisdictions, a landlord has grounds for evicting tenants who make unauthorized repairs or alterations to the dwelling.)
- Let your tenant know that, since this is an unauthorized repair, they need to pay for it.
- Threaten to evict (if you can do this in your jurisdiction) if they won’t pay. This might encourage your tenant to settle the debt with the contractor. If not, consider proceeding with the eviction, especially if the bill were substantial. It’s essential to know the law in your state.
- If you decide to evict, you must send the tenant a termination notice as per your state’s law. These are “quit” or “cure” notices, used when the tenant violates the lease agreement. State law allows a certain period for the tenant to “cure” a violation, and in this case, curing it would mean paying the vendor’s bill. If the tenant fails to do this, he must either leave the premises or face an eviction lawsuit. If the tenant doesn’t leave, you must start the eviction process. Since eviction laws are quite strict, it is best to consult a real estate attorney to ensure the proper procedure is followed.
Under the law of virtually all states, it’s your responsibility to ensure that all electrical, plumbing, and HVAC systems are in good working order, along with all the appliances in the dwelling. State law usually specifies how much time a landlord has to address a specific repair.
If it involves water, electricity, or the heating system, you generally must contact a repair person within 24 hours of receiving the complaint. A broken stove or other appliance may allow you 48 hours of leeway, while less urgent repairs need addressing within a week to 10 days.
Tenant rights vary by state. In some states, tenants have the right to make certain repairs and deduct rent to pay for them. In other states, the tenant may have the repairs made after providing you with a written cost estimate by a professional and then deduct the amount from the rent. You must approve and inspect the repair work in those instances.
State law may permit tenants to authorize repairs in the case of an emergency if they are unable to contact you.
Emergencies generally constitute an event threatening the immediate health and safety of the tenant or the building itself is at risk without immediate work. In a true emergency, you are responsible for the cost of repairs. The lease agreement must indicate exactly what amounts to an emergency, in accordance with state law.
Your lease agreement should contain language making it clear that repairs are your responsibility. Include a sentence such as this one:
Tenant shall not make repairs or hire contractors to make repairs.
Consider adding this:
Under no circumstances will the landlord be responsible for any repairs or improvements made without written authorization.
The lease should also contain language authorizing you to allow contractors or repair personnel access to the rental unit in the absence of the tenant during normal business hours.
Requests in Writing
A written record protects you and your tenant. Your lease should state that all such requests must be in writing.
But you’ll probably receive a phone call when a tenant requests a repair.
If that happens, you should acknowledge that you will investigate (and fix) the problem, and ask your tenant to please put the request in writing. Or, you can initiate the email, stating that you received the request to do X. Have your tenant acknowledge the email.
When Not to Contact You
You probably don’t want your tenant contacting you about simple things. It’s wise to leave the tenant a basic troubleshooting guide to appliances. The first item on the list should advise them to make sure the equipment is plugged in. Any troubleshooting practices must ensure that they can’t make the situation worse.
- If the smoke detector gives off that awful “nails on a chalkboard” beep indicating the battery needs replacement, the lease agreement should authorize the tenant to install a new battery.
- If the water is too hot, it’s fine for the tenant to turn down the thermostat on the water heater.
- If the dishwasher won’t drain, the tenant can check the drain for food particles and clean it. If it’s still not working, you’ll contact a repairman.
List such exceptions in the lease agreement.
Conditions Caused by Tenants
A tenant might seek an unauthorized repair that they pay for. This could happen when they or a guest cause the damage. The lease holds your tenant responsible for payment, but your tenant might not want you to know, for example, that their kid shattered a window while playing ball. So they fix the window, or they get a contractor or a friend to fix it.
That’s not acceptable. Even though your tenant is obligated to pay for the damage, they do not have the right to authorize this sort of repair … even if it comes out of their own pocket. They might do a substandard job.
If you notice that happened, you should require the tenant to pay to have the work redone by a contractor of your choosing. If you spy haphazard repairs when the tenant is moving out, you can deduct the cost of corrective repairs from the security deposit. The tenant’s inadequate repairs constitute damage, not normal wear-and-tear.
If you choose to not pay the contractor since you didn’t authorize the work, the contractor might put a lien on your property. However, since you did not sign off on the contractor’s job order, the contractor should not have the right to place a mechanic’s lien on your property for nonpayment.
That doesn’t mean the contractor won’t try, though.
Depending on the state, knowingly filing a false mechanic’s lien is a felony. Request a hearing, and present all your documentation. Along with getting the lien removed, you may also have your legal fees reimbursed.