Question: I have been living in the same apartment since January 1981. During that time, the building has had four owners. I think the building, a fourplex, was built in the ’30s or ’40s. I have a severe problem with snoring and I need to purchase a CPAP(Continuous Positive Airway Pressure)machine for sleep apnea as prescribed by my doctor. This machine requires a grounded electrical outlet, of which there is none in this apartment. Actually, my microwave and my computer also required grounded outlets, but I have been using adapters for them. The refrigerator was replaced several years ago and the then-owner/maintenance man merely snipped off the grounding part of its plug and plugged it into an ungrounded outlet. Are there any building code requirements that would require the owner to change all or some of the outlets to be grounded? Does my medical need hold any weight in asking for a grounded outlet at least in my bedroom?
Tenants’ attorney Kellman replies:
The dwelling must be maintained in a safe and habitable condition. The code specifically provides that the electrical system must conform “…with applicable law at the time of installation, maintained in good working order.” In your case, this is an older home and probably built well before grounded circuits were required. Therefore, absent a significant upgrade of the home or unless there is a dangerous condition created by the use of the electrical system, the landlord may not be required to modify any wiring or add grounding plugs throughout the house. As to the use of the medical device, however, the rules change a bit. Under fair housing and discrimination laws, a landlord must make reasonable accommodations for a person based on a disability. This only means that the landlord may be required to allow permission for certain alterations or modifications to accommodate the disability. Unfortunately, the law requires the tenant to pay the costs of those changes to the home. Under some situations, the tenant must even restore the unit back to the way it was (before the modification) upon moving out. In your case, the landlord would probably have to allow the alteration of at least one circuit to add a grounding wire for the medical device. Of course, when the alteration or modification is an improvement (as in your case) the landlord should reimburse the tenant for those costs if it will remain after the tenant leaves.
Landlords’ attorney Smith replies:
From the landlord’s point of view, there is no requirement for additional grounding of outlets so long as the outlets were installed to code and function properly. These two requirements being met, the landlord has complied with the state and local rental habitability laws. My view is that the landlord does not have to concede to your special requirements unless your sleep disorder qualifies as a disability defined by the Americans With Disability Act. Although it stretches it a bit, it is conceivable that this could be the case.
Question: I find your column very informative and enjoyed a recent column concerning lodgers and room rentals, which prompts me to ask you about “in-law” or “guest house” rentals. The reality is that many people rent out “in-law or “guest house” units. Although they are often much more desirable than apartments, they are not usually zoned or completely built to code as rentals. Are there considerations regarding the legal, tax, insurance, and rental agreement aspects when renting out these units?
Landlords’ attorney Smith replies:
Indeed there are. A real estate owner may lawfully rent out in-law or guest-house units so long as the landlord/tenant relationship does not violate zoning laws with respect to density regulations. Of course, if the addition was bootlegged, that is, not built to code, then its operation is illegal and rental expenses cannot legally be deducted for tax purposes, and collection of rent is at risk. Still, to the extent that it is a bona fide landlord/tenant relationship and rental income is derived from the guest house, etc., the landlord will be legally obligated to declare such as income for tax purposes. Rental appreciation and other deductions can be made as though it was a regular apartment building. Landlord/tenant rules apply in the event of an eviction. It would not be legal to force the tenant out for nonpayment of rent without going through this legal process. Before renting guest houses or in-law units, carefully investigate whether it is legal to do so and what is in your best investment interests.
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,” in association with San Diego attorneys Steven R. Kellman, director of the Tenant’s Legal Center, and Ted Smith, principal in a firm representing landlords.
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