Q: I live in a duplex and my air conditioner has been working intermittently now for nearly a year. At first it didn’t seem to cool as fast as I would expect. Then for the last few months the fan would work manually, and that was helpful and tolerable during the cooler months of the year, but now it is getting really hot during the day, and last week everything just stopped working.
I contacted my landlord who set up an appointment for a repairperson to come out to inspect and repair the unit. The repairman determined that parts are no longer available, and said the entire unit needs to be replaced at a cost of $7,000.
I told my landlord who said he cannot afford to replace the air conditioning unit. On top of all this, my wife is seven months pregnant and we are in the worst heat of the summer, which has just started. Can I withhold rent until the air conditioner gets repaired?
A: You certainly have a difficult situation and have been patient. You have taken the right steps by contacting your landlord who responded appropriately by having a repairperson come out promptly. If it were a simple fix, then there would be no problem. But the complete replacement of the entire air conditioner for $7,000 is an expense that many landlords would have trouble handling.
My first suggestion is to contact other HVAC (heating, ventilating and air conditioning) repair companies to see if someone else has the ability to repair the current unit. Often HVAC repair companies will not carry parts for every manufacturer so you will need to find a company that specializes and carries a full stock of parts for the specific brand or unit that needs repair. While it is really the landlord’s responsibility to do this, you might want to see if you can assist in finding another company that can repair rather than replace the unit.
I know you are anxious to get the unit working but be careful not to get hurt trying to repair the unit yourself. For example, if this unit is mounted on the roof, don’t put yourself in danger and try to get the manufacturer information and model and serial number off the unit; instead, see if the repairperson who was just out or your landlord has that available. You might also want to see if a comparably rated air conditioning unit can be located for less than $7,000. That figure seems high to me unless you live in a very large rental home.
Your question about withholding rent is certainly a valid consideration, but I would not suggest that strategy unless you are advised to do so by a local landlord-tenant legal expert in your area.
Also, you may want to consider the idea of paying for the repairs yourself and deducting the amount you pay from future rent. Besides the obvious fact that you probably don’t have that much money to spend on your landlord’s rental property, there might also be an issue with the $7,000 being beyond what your state laws allow for repair-and-deduct provisions.
You need to put your communications in writing, and even emails will be helpful in case you need to prove anything at a later date. You may have a claim for a reduction in rent, or, if all else fails, you may need to justify breaking the lease to find another location.
You could also seek written documentation from your wife’s medical providers indicating that air conditioning is essential to her during pregnancy, which would further support your position that the landlord needs to immediately resolve this issue of no air conditioning regardless of the cost.
Q: If you could offer one tip to a newbie rental property owner, what would it be?
A: If I had to start with just one tip, it would be to carefully select your tenants, as long-term, stable and reliable tenants lead to lower turnover. Turnover is one of the most costly problems for owners of small rental properties. And no matter what you do, your tenants will eventually move. So turnover is inevitable. But if you can keep your tenants for longer periods of time, you can greatly reduce your operating expenses while maintaining steady rental income.
If you take the time to properly screen and select your tenants and look for someone who intends to stay for a long time, you’re usually rewarded. Treating the tenants respectfully and responding promptly to their reasonable requests often leads to longer tenancies as well.
This column on issues confronting tenants and landlords is written by property manager Robert Griswold, author of "Property Management for Dummies" and "Property Management Kit for Dummies" and co-author of "Real Estate Investing for Dummies."
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