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Landlords, Tenants, and the Duty to Repair

If you have a landlord you should not have to repair your own home.

If you have a landlord you should not have to repair your own home.

The Duty to Repair

Most tenants would probably agree that the landlord's obligation to keep the dwelling in good repair is the single most important thing a landlord does for his tenants. Georgia law has long recognized this. The landlord has an absolute duty to repair and, despite what you may have been told, this duty cannot be waived or assigned.

I read lease agreements, many of them from large apartment complexes or property management companies, that try to put the landlord's duty of repair off on the tenant. These landlords are trying to avoid their duty to save money at the expense of your health and safety. I find it is easier to think of the duty to repair as three separate and overlapping duties.

The Duty to Maintain the Property

The first duty to repair is the duty of the landlord to keep the dwelling in the same condition as it was when you moved in. This means that if you moved into a an apartment with, say, a dishwasher, the landlord has to fix the dishwasher if it breaks. However, if you moved into an apartment with a dishwasher that was already broken the landlord is not obligated to repair it. This is why it is important to inspect the unit before you move in! 

There are two exceptions you need to be aware of. First, if your lease states that certain appliances or features of the dwelling will be provided by the landlord then the landlord must repair and maintain these appliances or features regardless of whether or not they were working or present when you moved in. So if the lease says the apartment has a dishwasher the landlord has to repair the dishwasher, regardless of whether or not it was broken when you first moved in. Second, if there is a defect or problem with the dwelling but it could not have been discovered with an inspection the landlord is obligated to repair it regardless of whether or not existed when you moved in. And if the landlord hid something from you, for example painting over water damage, all bets are off for the landlord.

The Duty to Comply with Local Law

The second duty to repair is the duty to keep the dwelling unit compliant with health, safety, and building codes. These codes vary from county to county and city to city, and different codes apply to single-family houses and multi-unit apartments. Generally, they require dwelling units to be reasonably airtight and watertight, have reliable electrical and plumbing systems, have functioning doors and windows, have working fire safety equipment, and be structurally sound. Things like leaking pipes, holes in the roof or walls, doors that won't lock, and malfunctioning or nonexistent smoke detectors usually fall under building code violations. Remember, the landlord has to keep the dwelling in compliance with building codes no matter what the lease says. These codes are like laws and there are NO exceptions.

I have seen many leases in which the landlord attempts to circumvent his duty of repair. They say things like, "tenant has a duty to maintain the lawn and replace light bulbs and air filters." These contracts are unenforceable. Remember, the landlord has an ABSOLUTE duty to repair. That means the duty cannot be waived or assigned to another person, including the tenant. Replacing air filters, smoke detector batteries, light bulbs in light fixtures that are attached to the apartment, and maintaining the yard are part of the ongoing maintenance responsibilities of owning property. They are the landlord's obligation, not the tenant's, no matter what the contract says. 

The Duty to Maintain Habitability

The duty to maintain habitability is a catchall. Broadly, it means that if a landlord holds property out to the public as being a dwelling he is guaranteeing that the property meets the minimum standards for human habitation. This only applies to residential properties and cannot be waived. If the property becomes unsafe, unsanitary, or otherwise uninhabitable the landlord has an absolute duty to repair the property. This is less of an issue today than it was in the past when building codes were lax or nonexistent, but it still has a place in landlord tenant law.  

What Counts as a Repair?

We know that vacuuming the carpet is the tenant's responsibility, and fixing a broken pipe is the landlord's responsibility, but what about all the work in between? What is a repair? A good rule of thumb is this: any maintenance or repair work involving something that is attached to the dwelling and owned by the landlord is a landlord's responsibility. The landlord owns the apartment and all the pipes, wires, and walls within it. It's his responsibility to repair them. The landlord owns the air conditioner and it is attached to the apartment. It's his responsibility to change the filters. The lights built into the ceiling are attached to the apartment and owned by the landlord. It's his responsibility to change the bulbs. Although, if you brought your own floor lamp the landlord would not have to replace that bulb. What about the grass? Well, the grass is attached to the land in front of the house and the grass is owned by landlord. It's his responsibility to cut it. But if you plant some tomatoes in the backyard it is not the landlord's obligation to care for those plants or to remove them when you move out. After all, while those plans are attached to the property they are your pants, not the landlord's.

What if the landlord refuses to make repairs?

I get a lot of calls about landlords who will not repair apartments and houses. The first thing to do is report the issue to the landlord. Make the report via email if you can, you want a record. Be persistent; if the repair is not made send another email and ask what is taking so long. The Georgia Landlord Tenant Handbook, linked here, has a list of remedies on Page 10. You may also want to call your local code enforcement.

I help people who are injured in cars, at work, or in rental housing. If you have been injured and believe another person was at fault feel free to contact me. The first meeting is always free. If you are having issues with your security deposit you may want to check out the security deposit page.

Robert Cairns