Q: I live in a 12-unit apartment building. When the previous owner died, his will provided an apartment "rent-free for life" to a friend of mine. The building was sold recently and the new owners are aware of the agreement and do not collect rent from this tenant. But an issue has come up and I am wondering who is legally responsible for the maintenance inside this rent-free apartment? They are claiming that since my friend doesn’t pay rent they are not obligated to make any repairs to his unit. He is not asking them to renovate or upgrade the apartment but just to fix things that break. Does this make sense?
A: This is an interesting situation that does not commonly occur and the only way to accurately answer your question is to review the will or other appropriate documents to see the exact provisions of the bequest. It is possible that there were limitations or requirements placed on the use or maintenance of the rent-free apartment as part of the bequest. However, assuming the documents are silent or not available, it seems that the current owners of the property are legally responsible for the maintenance required for this particular apartment under the standard interpretation of an owner’s responsibility to maintain and repair rental property. Simply stated, the current owners must maintain this apartment in exactly the same manner as they are legally required for all of the other units in the building.
The provision of a life estate to your friend would not seem to change the normal obligation of a landlord to properly maintain the premises in a usual manner. I would suggest your friend send a letter to the owner outlining their understanding of the arrangement and ask the new owner to respond with their reasons why they are unwilling to make routine repairs. Of course, if they have some legal basis then your friend should seek legal advice as well.
Q: Late last year the roofs were completely replaced on my apartment building. I had never had any roof leaks. Recently, I returned from a week’s vacation to find that my new roof had leaked and my bed and dresser were completely soaked and ruined.
I made a claim for approximately $1,000 to the property manager and owner and they have turned my file over to their insurance company. The insurance company has been impossible and has given me the runaround for nearly four months. Is there an agency where I can file a complaint against the apartment complex and the insurance company?
A: While a complaint may be in order, I would first suggest you contact your insurance agent about making a claim on your renter’s insurance policy. Your insurance will take care of your damages minus your deductible and then seek subrogation or reimbursement from the landlord’s insurance, as the damage clearly was not created by any negligence on your part.
If you still are looking to complain somewhere, I would try your local building inspection or code enforcement department or you could also file a complaint with the local Better Business Bureau or similar organization. Other possibilities include the state insurance commissioner’s office or similar agencies.
Other state and/or local organizations or trade associations are typically not willing to handle tenant vs. landlord complaints. However, if you don’t have renter’s insurance the real question is: What can you do to get your furniture replaced or the funds to replace it yourself?
You indicate that you made a claim with the property manager and owner. This claim should be in writing and make a specific demand for your estimated damages. If you do not receive satisfaction from your written demand then your best option would be to take the owner to court. Luckily, your claim is for a nominal amount and you may be able to seek reimbursement for your damages in a small claims or limited jurisdiction court.
Small claims courts are the proper venue for many types of tenant vs. landlord disputes, as the cost is very reasonable and typically both parties represent themselves without attorneys. Most likely the owner will contact the owner’s insurance company and demand that the insurer resolve the matter quickly so that the owner does not have to appear in court. Another option is to contact the media, as each of the local affiliates of the major network television stations has consumer reporters who are interested in helping the underdog. I have personally worked with the consumer reporters in assisting individuals in tenant-landlord situations and the results have been very positive.
This column on issues confronting tenants and landlords is written by property manager Robert Griswold, author of "Property Management for Dummies" and co-author of "Real Estate Investing for Dummies."
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