Must landlord maintain smoke detectors?

Some jurisdictions may require a collaborative effort

Q: I own a small multifamily apartment complex. The units have smoke detectors and I am currently installing carbon monoxide detectors as well. Who is responsible for making sure that the batteries in the detectors are operative or actually work? Do I need to go to each unit, test, buy the batteries and replace, or does each tenant assume responsibility for their own?

A: When you prepare the rental unit for your incoming tenant you need to make sure that the smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors are working properly. By testing the unit and having it indicate by sound or visually that it is operating properly, you are in essence making sure that the battery is working.

Once the tenant takes possession, the usual custom and practice in the rental housing industry is for the tenant to be responsible for replacing the batteries in both units.

This same concept also applies to light bulbs and other "consumable" items. Now some owners and property management companies have a voluntary policy where they will test and replace the batteries in the smoke detector or carbon monoxide detector upon request by the tenant. This is a good policy but not required.

Usually, a nonoperative unit is the result of the batteries having been removed or not working, but you should also make sure that the units are properly located in the unit per the manufacturer’s directions.

Some local jurisdictions also have laws or regulations that require a periodic testing of the smoke detector and/or carbon monoxide detectors, and you must make sure that you full comply with all such requirements.

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However, you want to make sure that your policy is clearly communicated and understood by the tenants, as both smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors are important life-safety equipment.

Other owners and property management companies have internal policies that they will test these devices every six or 12 months, while some just check them at the time the rental unit turns over between tenants.

Whatever your policy, be sure that your lease or rental agreement contains the proper language to allow you as the landlord or property manager the right to enter the rental unit for such testing.

Q: In your column, I often see a reference to the term "security deposit" mentioned. And in your answers you describe how the security deposit is for unpaid rent and repairing the rental unit beyond normal wear and tear. As a landlord myself, it is my understanding that a "security deposit" is for providing security or the protection of the tenant and their possessions.

If these funds are to be used for repairs, then I think it is better to call this money a "damage deposit" or "repair deposit," unless a landlord is actually providing security. Otherwise, if it is called a "security deposit" and there is a break-in and the tenant is injured or harmed, this could fall back on the landlord’s insurance and or the landlord could be liable. Am I wrong?

A: A "security deposit" is the most common term for funds held by the landlord to protect the landlord from defaults by the tenant. This term is used universally in the rental housing industry and in many state laws and statutes, and I have never heard of anyone confusing it with a landlord’s responsibility for providing security or some implied safety from harm.

A "security deposit" can be used to cover unpaid rent, damages beyond normal wear and tear, and other proper charges (late fees, pet rent, returned-check fees, etc.).

The "security deposit" is not specifically related to "security" or the protection of the tenant and/or their possessions at all.

Of course, a landlord should always make sure that the rental premises have working door and window locks and proper lighting, but the way the "security deposit" would be related to those items would be if the tenant damaged those items and the landlord lawfully deducted funds for their repair.

What you might be thinking of is that the term "security" should never be used with prospective renters or tenants. This goes to the concern you express in that representations made to a tenant upon move-in or in the lease, advertising or other materials given to a prospective renter that promise or even imply any sort of landlord responsibility for the protection or safeguarding of a tenant or their possessions could result in a claim if the tenant is a victim of a crime or theft.

While the term "security deposit" is a common term, there is nothing to prevent a landlord from calling it a "damage deposit" or another term — except that if you use the term "damage deposit" you could have a tenant challenge the landlord from using the funds to cover unpaid rent.

This column on issues confronting tenants and landlords is written by property manager Robert Griswold, author of "Property Management for Dummies" and "Property Management Kit for Dummies" and co-author of "Real Estate Investing for Dummies."

Email your questions to Rental Q&A at rgriswold.inman@retodayradio.com. Questions should be brief and cannot be answered individually.

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