Q: I am a renter and we have lived in the apartment for more than two years. At the end of March I informed the landlord that one of our kitchen drawers and the cabinet door below it were in need of repair. The landlord came by to take a look at the problem but did not take them away at that time. He came back a couple of weeks later and removed them.
It wasn’t until one month had passed that he found someone to repair them. This was in late April. It is now June and he has not returned the repaired items. I have asked him numerous times over the past two months about the status of the drawer and the cabinet door. Each time he said he would check with the fellow doing the work and get back to me.
On more than one occasion he indicated the repair guy was slow. I most recently e-mailed him on May 15 to find out the status of the repair and getting the items back. He said he would again check with the fellow doing the repair and let me know. I have not heard anything, nor have the drawer and the cabinet door been returned to me.
My rent is coming due and I was thinking I would withhold payment of my rent until I get the drawer and the cabinet door returned. Is this a good idea?
A: Based on the type of problem you have experienced I would not consider withholding rent. Actually, I believe most tenants’ rights attorneys would also advise you not to withhold rent, as the missing drawer and cabinet door pose an inconvenience but are not habitability items or something that the court would find constitute an emergency.
Even under the "repair and deduct" statutes available in some jurisdictions, the landlord is allowed a reasonable time (up to 30 days in some states) to make non-emergency repairs, and a kitchen drawer and cabinet door are not likely to get the backing of most courts if you don’t pay and your landlord moves forward on an eviction. You don’t want to risk an eviction over a couple of annoying items.
As a property manager faced with these types of problems, I can tell you that finding someone to repair drawers and cabinets is not easy or inexpensive. This seems like a simple repair but it requires custom woodworking, which is not a widely held skill in many areas.
A devious tenant can really make life miserable for a landlord by just simply taking the "kitchen junk drawer" when they move out. (Of course, I wouldn’t advise tenants to ever take a drawer, as the cost to replace it could result in a large deduction from your security deposit!)
It is almost impossible to get someone to make a new drawer, and they may not be available at your favorite building-supply store. I understand that you are just looking for a repair but that isn’t always easy. So I think the landlord may get some leniency from the court if the court knows anything about this issue.
Q: I have always been rather casual about renting the back unit of my duplex and never bothered to use a written rental agreement. Is this legal? Must all rental agreements be in writing?
A: You are not required to have rental contracts in writing, and generally a month-to-month rental agreement or a lease of less than one year may be oral or written and will be legally enforceable.
With an oral agreement, nothing is written down and the landlord and tenant just talk things over and come to an understanding. Some owners prefer oral agreements because they have fewer rules than other agreements.
However, as a property manager, it has been my experience that oral rental contracts are not the way to go, as you and the tenant might remember things differently later.
I would strongly caution both owners and renters against using oral rental contracts, even if the owner and renter know each other very well or are related. A rental agreement or lease is a complicated transaction with important rights and responsibilities for both parties.
Attorneys spend a lot of time in court discussing and debating the rights of their respective clients even with a written document. Can you imagine the time and expense of a legal action when the terms of the agreement are strictly based on what the landlord and tenant remember and mutually agree upon?
So while it may be legal to have an oral month-to-month rental agreement or lease less than one year, I would always advise a renter or landlord to use only a written agreement. Unless you like to live dangerously, put it in writing!
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."
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