Tenant, landlord dispute over plumbing bill

Who is responsible for waterline repair?

Q: We had a plumbing issue today and our landlord wants us to pay for the service. I reviewed our lease contract and it says that the lessor (landlord) is responsible for maintaining and repairing the waterlines. Any insight into this?

A: While I can’t see into your pipes, I can offer some insight into plumbing issues. Basically, tenants must use plumbing fixtures properly and as intended.

If the plumber had to be called out for a problem caused by you or a guest, the tab is on you. For example, if an item not suited for flushing down the toilet, such as paper towel, Q-tips or feminine protection products, the bill goes to you.

Ditto for any drain pipe, including garbage disposals. Some residents toss excessive amount of peelings and scraps into the kitchen garbage disposal and forget to run the water, which can cause the machine to shut down on newer models. If the disposal quits as a result of misuse and the disposal has to be cleared and reset, the repair bill may be handed to you.

Another problem often disputed is clogged drainpipes. Common sense should dictate what should go down the drain. Plumbers have described bottle caps, toothpicks and toenail clippings pulled from drains that seemed particularly clogged, requiring a trip to the cleanout area outside the unit. The cleanout, often located in a basement requires heavier equipment and may not be easily accessed. This type of cleanout is particularly pricey, which adds to the bottom line.

My advice? Ask the landlord for any written instructions of the care and use of the property, especially for plumbing. Some forbid the use of any liquid drain cleaner, since it can corrode the pipes, especially in older properties. Others disallow the use of toilet tank inserts, since they corrode the water seals.

Finally, do both of you a favor when you have a problem–plumbing or otherwise–by describing the problem as fully and completely as possible. Calling and complaining about a “plumbing issue” doesn’t define how, when, or where the problem should be investigated.

Q: The plumber said the pipes are very old. Don’t water and gas pipes have to be inspected periodically for safety? Do we have to pay for leaks and repairs?

A: Gas line and water are usually left unchecked unless a problem surfaces. As for repairs, unless they were caused by your deliberate use, you’re not to blame

Why aren’t gas lines inspected? Gas pipes, or lines, are only checked if the smell of gas is present. Fortunately, the odiferous scent added to natural gas makes trouble easy to discover. The gas company will come out at no charge and can be called directly. While there is no set inspection law for gas lines in most areas, some laws have changed since the Northridge earthquake in California, requiring flexible connections to all gas appliances, including water heaters. Water heaters have to be properly strapped into place as well. Some cities have stricter laws than others. If you have any specific concerns, details can be often be found by contacting your local Building and Safety Department.

Water pipes are separate than gas lines, and are rarely inspected or even noticed unless there is evidence of water leakage or mold. While older water lines can be troublesome, they are rarely dangerous. Water seeps downward, so downstairs dwellers should be on the lookout for water dripping from light fixtures or where walls and ceilings join. If you do seewater anywhere near an electrical source, call the landlord immediately and do not touch anything near the source.

Water leaks can also run under floors and feel “soggy” when you walk. A recent water leak at our place in the kitchen went undetected for a week since it was seeping from the shower pan behind a common wall.

If you notice water dripping from a pipe connection, notify your landlord immediately. Pinhole leaks can sometimes cause damage quickly, since the water sprays out like a high-pressure water gun. Hot water leaks are particularly damaging.

Sewer lines can sometimes get clogged, and since the water has nowhere to go, it can back up. A telltale sign of sewer backup problems is sludge appearing in the bathtub and toilet at the same time. Sewer backups are only the tenant’s fault if a foreign object, such as a bottle cap or excess hair or paper has been flushed into the system. Otherwise, the most common sewer culprit is tree roots, which are not the tenant’s fault.


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