Q: My landlord doesn’t keep up the common areas of our building. Don’t they at least need to change the light bulbs in the hallway?

A: Light bulbs and more. “A landlord’s repair and maintenance responsibilities extend beyond the four walls of the rental unit,” explains Mary Ann Hallenborg, attorney and author of “The New York Landlord’s Law book.” New York laws are typical of laws throughout the nation, with landlords being responsible for maintaining the common areas of a rental property.

What’s a common area? Common areas include “exterior walkways, parking lots, courtyards, all corridors, stairwells and elevator cabs,” notes Hallenborg. The laundry room, lobby and trash compactor rooms are also common-area territory. Alleys and roofs, if accessible to tenants, are also on the list. Common sense can also define where “common areas” are located, since it’s simply the areas that are used commonly by residents or their guests.

State laws generally require landlords to keep common areas clean and in good repair. Safety is important, too. Most state and local laws require “clean and safe” or “secure” housing, but the terms are vague. Sometimes case law defines them, such as in Alabama where a statute requires locks to “function safely and effectively” in an effort to provide protection for tenants from foreseeable criminal activity.

Lighting is a typical common-area concern. Keeping tenants in the dark after hours is not only a bad idea – it may invite trouble. Criminal acts that have happened as a result of inadequate lighting have resulting in lawsuits throughout the country, prompting landlords to review their common-area lighting.

How should a tenant handle common-area deficiencies or problems? Start with simple communication. Landlords aren’t psychic, and may not realize a light bulb has burned out. A simple phone call is a good place to start. Be sure to keep notes on when you called, to whom you spoke, or if you simply left a message. Larger buildings may have multiple personnel, while mom-and pops may have a family member answer and forget to share the message.

No response? Follow up with a note to the landlord, being precise and specific as to the nature of the problem is important. For example, leaving a message such as “the laundry room is a problem” is not helpful. “There’s trash all over the floor in the laundry room,” while distressing to report, addresses the problem.

What if the problem isn’t addressed or fixed? Many counties and cities have a local health department, which takes complaints. Check your local phone book or the Internet for details.

A note of caution before you call in the authorities: Tenants are generally required by law to take “reasonable care” of their units, plus keep common areas clean and undamaged. Tenants are also usually responsible for repairing all damage that results from their neglect or abuse, and to repair damage caused by anyone for whom they are responsible, such as family, guests or pets. Be sure you have not contributed to the problem you are reporting.

What if a common-area amenity is the problem? For example, some swimming pools have been drained and even cemented over as a result of liability or maintenance concerns. Does the tenant have the right to a fair swim? According to some states, a reduction in rent may be justified if the amenity was included as part of the lease or rental agreement. Consult a landlord/tenant attorney or mediator for details.

Q: My lease limits the items to two chairs and a table allowed on any balcony. The other day I received a notice stating that I was out of compliance and that within 48 hours management would enter my unit and remove any non-compliant items from my balcony. Can they do this?

A: There are three issues here: right of entry, right of removal, and right to control what’s on the balcony. As for entry, most states have specific laws that govern landlord entry, which is usually limited to common-sense reasons, such as showing the unit, making repairs or in case of emergency. Decor removal? Checking with several sources, none felt removal of private property was allowed. The worst-case scenario would be management serving you a three-day notice “to perform covenant or quit” for violating lease terms, along with threatened eviction or legal proceedings as a result of your misdeed. As for the choice of balcony decor, the lease can limit the items allowed, and violating the decor rule could result in a three-day notice as well.


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