Q: My son just graduated from college and moved into a basement apartment in the college town. Last week while visiting, I came across pipes in his pantry that were wrapped with deteriorating asbestos — powder and dust was all around and on the shelf. My son called the owner and it took her two weeks to get someone there to look at it. In addition, the oven coil does not work, the oven is filthy, the bathroom stinks, and the landlady won’t do anything.

My son has a year’s lease. Are these problems significant enough to enable him to get out of his lease and get his deposit back? It is difficult in a college town to be treated fairly when some college students give all college students a bad reputation. –Rona A.

A: If your son could go back to school, here’s one course I’d recommend he take: How to Be a Savvy Consumer (not that many colleges offer such practical classes!). The problems you describe should have been evident before your son signed the lease — if he had thoroughly examined the apartment. With the exception of the asbestos fibers, the complaint he has boils down to the fact that he’s rented a dump. While it’s poor form, at the very least, for landlords to offer dirty and unpleasant lodging, until those conditions make the rental unsafe, unlivable, or in violation of certain health and safety codes, there’s nothing illegal about it.

The presence of airborne asbestos fibers, however, raises the stakes somewhat. Asbestos is a known carcinogen: When the fibers break down and enter the air, inhaling them over time can cause lung cancer. Old asbestos is typically left alone until it begins to deteriorate; at that point, property owners either cover it up, or remove it using specially trained and licensed workers, who also dispose of it properly.

You don’t tell us how the asbestos issue turned out. Ideally, a competent contractor sized up the situation as constituting a health hazard, advised the owner on how to safely remove or encapsulate the asbestos, and that was that. There is no legal justification to break the lease here. But perhaps the visitor advised the owner to do nothing; or maybe the owner ripped out the insulation on his own, thus dispersing even more fibers and causing a potentially higher health risk. In that event, your son might have grounds to break the lease, arguing that the asbestos made the rental unfit for habitation.

Q: My neighbor in the duplex where I live recently moved out, leaving a total mess. His father came by to clean it up, but tossed a bunch of stuff behind our garage, onto the neighboring property. These neighbors are upset, and have asked my landlord to remove it, but he says he’s not responsible, and that they’ll have to take it up with the former tenant (or his father). Who is responsible for disposing of this trash? –Jennifer W.

A: Here’s an instance in which there is the legal answer, and then there is the smart answer. Let’s look at the legal answer first.

Your neighbors might have a hard time pinning the consequences of the careless behavior of the ex-tenant (or his father) on your landlord. Landlords aren’t automatically responsible for everything their tenants do — they become so only if, first of all, they owe a duty of care towards the person affected by their tenants’ actions. Other residents on the property clearly fall within this group, but whether a neighbor is someone whom the landlord must legally look out for is something a judge would have to decide. Second, in order to be even partially responsible for their tenants’ acts, landlords must know that the tenant is about to or has been misbehaving, have an opportunity to do something about it, and fail to take reasonable steps to prevent the harm. So, for example, if this tenant had been in the regular habit of disposing of unneeded household items by tossing them onto the neighbor’s property; if the neighbors complained to the landlord; and if the landlord didn’t take action (by warning the tenant to stop and evicting, if necessary, on the grounds of illegal activity — dumping items on another’s property), your neighbors could legally look to the landlord to cover the expense of cleaning up the debris. But that’s not what you’ve described here — it seems that the landlord had no knowledge of this dumping plan and could not have prevented it.

Now for the smart answer. Any landlord with an ounce of sense will realize that maintaining good relations with neighbors is very important. These people are the landlord’s eyes and ears as to what’s going on at the property, and can be invaluable as an early warning system if things go wrong. Prospective tenants will ask about the neighbors — "Are they nice?" — and it’s always a selling point to be able to truthfully say yes. Angry neighbors aren’t fun for anyone, and although it’s not the fault of future tenants that former ones took advantage, that won’t stop the neighbors from feeling hostile to the idea of yet another set of renters next door. The wise course is clear for your landlord: Clean up the mess, apologize to the neighbors, and consider a modest gift (a pair of movie tickets, a gift certificate to a nearby restaurant) to smooth the way. Think of it as marketing.

Janet Portman is an attorney and managing editor at Nolo. She specializes in landlord/tenant law and is co-author of "Every Landlord’s Legal Guide" and "Every Tenant’s Legal Guide." She can be reached at janet@inman.com.


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