Q: We own a home that we rented to an elderly woman and her daughter. The mother has recently been admitted to a convalescent hospital, and the daughter, who is also sick, is having a hard time coming up with the rent (she hasn’t been able to find a roommate because the place is so dirty). If she doesn’t pay the rent, we cannot pay the mortgage and we will end up in foreclosure. Can we give her a notice to vacate the property because she hasn’t paid the rent, even though she’s sick? –Art B.
A: You are within your rights to terminate this tenancy if the rent remains unpaid. But there may be steps you can take that could avert that eventuality.
First, if you believe that the property’s condition is the reason your tenant has not been able to find a roommate, discuss this with the tenant. Perhaps circumstances surrounding her mother’s illness and move have overwhelmed her, making it hard to keep on top of the housekeeping. You might consider helping her towards a fresh start, by paying for a housecleaning service to thoroughly clean the unit. Of course, your tenant will have to follow through with good housekeeping habits, otherwise a roommate who is brought in when all is clean and neat will leave when conditions deteriorate, and you’ll all be back to where you started.
Second, call your local social services agency. Your tenant may qualify for rent assistance (perhaps as a Section 8 recipient). If you don’t already accept Section 8, you’ll want to look into it. Your county may also have direct aid programs that she would qualify for, particularly if she is significantly ill (or legally disabled).
Finally, try to learn whether your tenant has other family members who might help out. Often, families are unaware of dire conditions when the person at risk is too proud, or afraid, to contact them. Though you don’t want to get into the middle of a family drama, you could at least pass this information on to the relevant social services agency, who might get involved.
Q: I rent an old home that I’ve had to work on quite a bit. Recently, the garage door practically fell off its hinges — the bolts had pulled out of the rotten wood, and the chain and hinges are rusted and bent. The landlord claims I broke it, and would not reimburse me for the replacement. I just can’t believe that I’m responsible for these costs. Am I? –Patricia G.
A: I wish you were writing about this problem before you went ahead and fixed it on your own. The garage door failure appears to be the result of age and use, otherwise known as the ordinary wear and tear that all aspects of a structure encounter throughout the years. Put another way, this repair problem is the landlord’s responsibility, because it is not the result of your deliberate or careless behavior. …CONTINUED
When landlords refuse to make needed repairs, many states give tenants the rights to repair them on their own (known as "repair and deduct") or withhold rent until the problem is fixed (for very serious or dangerous problems only). Let’s assume your state is one of them. A garage door that could come crashing down at any minute (or springs that could break, sending metal flying) are obvious safety hazards, and would qualify as proper candidates for either remedy. The first step for each avenue is for tenants to give landlords notice of the problem and a reasonable amount of time in which to fix it.
When tenants withhold rent or deduct the cost of a repair from the rent check, landlords often respond with a termination notice (for unpaid rent), and when tenants hold firm, they may proceed to an eviction. Tenants defend against the eviction by proving that they justifiably and correctly used the self-help remedy.
In your situation, having already performed the repair, you might have a hard time invoking the rent-withholding or repair-and-deduct remedies, even though they would have been appropriate. That’s because the landlord might argue that he wasn’t given adequate notice, or a sufficient time to respond, as are required under your state’s laws.
All may not be lost, however. Although you didn’t avail yourself of the intended remedy at the right time, you have still done the landlord’s work for him, by paying for the repair. Your feeling that it’s just not fair that the landlord profit from his refusals to take care of his property is understandable, and a judge might agree with you. Your best bet is to file a lawsuit in small claims court, where you’ll argue that the landlord stands to be "unjustly enriched" unless he reimburses you for the cost of the repair. This is not a case of whimsical or cosmetic work that may improve the property but were not necessary — for instance, don’t think you can install a hot tub without authorization and then sue the landlord for its cost. Instead, this was a dangerous condition that had to be addressed, and although you didn’t play by the book, the result — placing responsibility on the landlord — should not change.
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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