Clarify repair work when signing lease agreement

By Steve Tytler

Question: I own some rental homes, and I was wondering what happens if a tenant calls a contractor to do work on the house without first telling the landlord, for example, to repair the roof or replace a plumbing fixture.

The contractor comes and does the work without any signed estimate or job order. Does the contractor have any recourse against the property owner, or would the tenant be responsible?

Answer: In the scenario you described, the tenant would probably be responsible for paying for any repair work they ordered on a rental house unless the tenant was acting as a “common law agent of the owner.”

In your example, there is no way the tenant could claim to be acting as your agent because you did not grant permission to order the repair work.

The same goes for the contractor. They would have no right to place a lien on your property unless the repair work was specifically authorized by you as the owner of the property, or the tenant was acting as your “agent.”

Under Washington’s Residential Landlord/Tenant Law, tenants do not have a “right” to have repair work done on the premise except for specific emergency situations. When a repair needs to be made, the tenant must give the landlord written notice of the problem and allow a reasonable period of time for the work to be done.

The law has specific time limits for different types of repairs. For example, the landlord must begin taking corrective action within 24 hours of receiving notice of any problems involving the heating system, hot or cold water, electricity or a hazardous condition.

Landlords have 48 hours to begin work on a defective range, refrigerator or major plumbing fixture; and up to 10 days to begin work on any nonurgent repairs.

It’s important to know that the landlord is not required to repair defective conditions caused by conduct of the tenants or their guests. A landlord is also not responsible for making repairs if the tenant refuses to allow the landlord access to the property for purposes of making the repairs.

From the tenant’s perspective, if the landlord fails to make repairs within the legal time limits after being properly notified, the tenant has a few options:

1. The tenant can give notice to the landlord and move out without forfeiting any deposits or prepaid rent.

2. The tenant may arrange to the have work done by a competent third party after providing the landlord with a written estimate of the cost. The tenant can then deduct the cost of the repair from the rent. However, the landlord must be given an opportunity to inspect the repair work, and the total cost cannot exceed one month’s rent.

If the tenant uses this remedy more than once, the total deductions for repair work in any 12-month period cannot exceed two month’s rent.

3. If the repair work will cost no more than half of one month’s rent, the tenant may choose to perform the repair themselves as long as no licenses are required (such as for electrical wiring). The job must be performed in a “workmanlike manner” and the landlord must be allowed to inspect the repairs.

The tenant may then deduct the cost of materials and labor from the next month’s rent, up to a maximum of half of one month’s rent per repair, or a total of one month’s rent in any 12-month period.

As a landlord myself, I try to avoid these types of confrontations by establishing a firm, but fair, business relationship with my tenants from day one. I have them sign a very thorough, very strict 10-page rental agreement that spells out in great detail what I expect of my tenants and what they can expect from me.

This rental agreement alone scares away most would-be troublemakers. The agreement contains two paragraphs that apply to repairs and alterations by tenants:

“Alterations by tenant: Tenant agrees to do no painting or any decorating in the house, or make any alterations, improvements, changes or additions to the premises or the fixtures, locks or wiring without the prior written consent of the Landlord.

“Under no circumstances will the Landlord be responsible for any improvements or repairs made without written authorization. Any improvements made by Tenant shall become the property of the Landlord at the conclusion of this agreement.”

“Worker’s warranty: All parties to this agreement warrant that any work or repairs performed by the Tenant will be undertaken only if he/she is competent and qualified to perform it, and the person performing the work will be totally responsible for all activities to assure they are done in a safe manner which will meet all applicable statutes.

“Tenant further warrants that he/she will be accountable for any mishaps or accidents resulting from such work, and that he/she will hold the Landlord free from harm, litigation or claims of any other person.”

In short, the tenants can’t make repairs without my permission, and if they do, they are totally responsible for paying for the work and correcting any mistakes or poor workmanship.

Of course, such an agreement is worthless if you can’t trust your tenants to follow it. Be very careful when selecting your tenants. Most of the tenant horror stories I’ve heard over the years can be traced back to the landlord failing to do an adequate background check on the rental applicants before they move in.

If you rent your property to the first person who shows up with a checkbook, you are asking for trouble. Always take the time to run a credit check, talk to the applicant’s employer and especially to their previous landlords.

Steve Tytler is a licensed real estate broker and owner of Best Mortgage. You can email him at features@heraldnet.com.