Q: We just bought a rental property with elderly tenants in the upstairs unit. They don’t get around very well, and I expect one of them will soon be in a wheelchair. Are we legally obligated to rebuild the stairs if this happens? –Anna W.
A: When any tenant becomes disabled and requests special accommodations (in policies or physical changes to common areas) or modifications (of their rented space), landlords must listen. Specifically, landlords must discuss the requests and explore all reasonable options or alternatives. Tenants typically pay for modifications of their rented space (except in Massachusetts and in federally financed properties); landlords shoulder the cost of modifying common areas. The stairway to the tenants’ door is a common area, like a walkway.
The operative word for your purposes is "reasonable." Assuming your tenant becomes legally disabled (needing to use a wheelchair will certainly qualify), is it reasonable to expect you to provide access to a second-story unit? If, by "rebuilding the stairs," you mean installing a lift of some sort, the issue is whether it’s reasonable to expect you to do this work.
Several factors go into this calculation, the biggest of which is expense. Because landlords pay for these changes, the expense must not be one that would seriously affect your ability to run your business. Other factors include the impact that the change would have on the value of your building, including its curb appeal, and whether the addition would trigger ongoing maintenance expenses.
When judges are called upon to weigh the impact of a tenant’s request on a landlord’s business, they take the landlord’s circumstances into account, too. A large, multistate apartment corporation that owns thousands of units can better absorb the cost of complying with a request than a mom-and-pop operation that barely makes a profit. Tenants might chafe at the thought that the fate of their request will depend, in part, on the landlord’s financial well-being, but this calculation is inevitable when the legal test is: "How will this request affect the landlord’s ability to run its business?"
In the event that your tenants ask for a lift, be sure to engage in what the law calls "meaningful discussions" about their request. A curt "It’s too expensive!" can land you in front of an administrative law judge, who has the power to fine you for failing to engage, regardless of the ultimate outcome of the tenants’ request.
Q: Our landlord is refinishing the hardwood floors in our duplex next month. He’s asked us to vacate for four days. He didn’t mention whether he would cover our expenses to live elsewhere. I think he should, what do you think? –Sandy and Mike
A: The answer to your question depends on the reason for the refinishing. If it’s being done because of something that the tenants have done, such as allowing their fish tank to overflow or leaving the faucet on in the bathroom, causing a flood, then the consequences of those mistakes are the tenants’ responsibilities. In this event, the tenants would be responsible for ruined carpet, flooring and (if it’s an upstairs unit) possibly the downstairs ceiling. And it follows that they would be responsible for their own substitute lodging, as well.
But if the work is done because the landlord thinks it’s time to do it — for example, to spiff up the place ahead of placing it on the market — then it’s all done on his dime. Your stay in a motel or hotel should be covered by the landlord. For this reason, most landlords will save refurbishing until tenant turnover time, if they can arrange it.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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