To avoid a tenant withholding rent, suing you for failure to handle major repairs, or other legal hassles with tenants, follow these seven steps:
1. Comply with state and local housing rules. State laws generally require landlords to make all repairs and do what it takes to keep rental premises “fit and habitable.” Local housing codes are often more specific, when it comes to things such as structural requirements and essential services you must provide and maintain, such as plumbing. Make sure you know your legal obligations under state and local rules. To get started, check out your state landlord-tenant laws.
2. Don’t allow nuisances. Anything that is dangerous to human life or detrimental to health may be considered a nuisance under local housing codes. Examples include inadequate plumbing or sewage facilities, excessive noise, or allowing drug dealing on rental property. Be sure your lease or rental agreement prohibits tenants from causing disturbances, violating the law, or otherwise preventing neighbors from enjoying the use of their homes. Be sure to keep rental property clear of “attractive nuisances" that are especially dangerous to children, such as abandoned equipment that draws children and is likely to cause injury.
3. Don’t try to evade your legal responsibilities—for example, by having your tenants sign a lease waiving their rights to habitable housing.
4. Make sure your tenants know their legal obligations. These include keeping the rental unit as clean and safe as the condition of the premises permits; properly disposing of garbage and other wast; using electrical, plumbing, heating, and other facilities and systems; fixing things that the tenant breaks or damages; and reporting problems, such as broken front door locks or a loose step or hand railing, as soon as possible (but within the time limits set by any state law).
5. Repair what you provide or promise, such as a dishwasher or a swimming pool.
6. Establish a good repair and maintenance system. This includes setting up easy-to-follow procedures for tenants to ask for repairs, documenting all complaints, and responding quickly when complaints are made (definitely within the time any state law require).
7. Conduct annual inspections of rental units to check any potential safety hazards or maintenance problems that may have been overlooked.
Every Landlord’s Legal Guide, by Stewart, Warner, and Portman (Nolo), provides complete details and forms for establishing a solid repair and maintenance system.