Amidst the excitement and relief of moving into a rental property, it’s easy to overlook seemingly mundane and time-consuming tasks like reading your lease agreement. In most cases, you are given a copy of it before you move in and must then sign it in person, in the presence of the property manager. Try to resist the temptation to glance through it and say you’ve read it, because there is important information – in particular with regard to rental property repairs and maintenance - that will, without question become relevant during your tenancy. You know what they say – forewarned is forearmed.
The Tenant’s Responsibilities
There are certain things you are responsible for as a tenant, beyond the basics such as paying rent on time and not running a petting zoo in your lounge room. Tenants often think they are ‘just’ residents but in fact by signing the lease you are also agreeing to be somewhat of a caretaker. Tenants are legally obliged to maintain the property in the condition it was in when they moved in and to notify the property manager of any issues if and when they arise. As you go about day to day life, there are incidental things that might happen such as marks on the carpet or walls, or perhaps an old tile breaks loose. These kinds of things will generally will be acknowledged as wear and tear. The lease agreement usually details the expected condition of the property and should be accompanied by the condition report, that reflects the actual state of the property on the day you arrived. There is no substance to the statement ‘but it was like that when I moved in’ if it’s not in the condition report that you signed at the start of your tenancy. The property manager will also inspect the property every 6 months to make sure you are maintaining it as you should, so keeping on top of it as you go is much better than scrambling to clean everything the day before the inspection.
The grey area comes for many tenants in understanding what they are responsible for in terms of rental property repairs and maintenance and what is the landlord’s responsibility. In its simplest form, if something was in good working order before, was not listed on the condition report as an issue, and you broke it, then you have to pay for it to get fixed. Your landlord might prefer to use their own tradespeople, however if it’s at your expense you can get advice from your property manager and your local tenants union (search online for ‘tenants union’ and your state) about getting other quotes for the job as comparison or accessing different tradespeople. They may decline your request but you can definitely ask. You may or may not have to organise the repair but you can have a say in the final bill in some cases.
The Landlord’s Responsibilities
If the repair that is required is not as a result of your action, then your only responsibility is to report it. The rest is up to the landlord. In every lease agreement, it’s the landlord’s responsibility to make sure everything is in working order during your tenancy. It’s important to know the difference between repairs, maintenance and improvements.
- Repairs are generally related to fixing something that’s broken, damaged, deteriorated or not working as it should.
- This as distinct from maintenance (such as mowing lawns, cleaning the pool, taking care of the garden) which the landlord may not be responsible for. This will differ from lease to lease depending on the property and you should find the detail about this in your lease, to make sure you keep up your end of the bargain.
- Repairs also differ from improvements which the landlord generally is not required to make as part of your tenancy agreement, but should do, to secure the value of their property and to justify the rent you will continue to pay.
There is also a distinction to be made between urgent and non-urgent repairs. Landlords can’t authorise repairs if they don’t know about the problem. You are obliged as part of your lease to report any change in function or damage that occurs in the property, to the property manager. They in turn need to arrange for the issue to be checked and the landlord must authorise repairs within specific time frames, which are detailed in your lease agreement and can be found on the website of your state’s tenants’ union.
You may not care about that loose door handle, or that flickering down light, or the tap that drips occasionally in the laundry you barely use, but you should. These small issues can lead to bigger more expensive problems down the track that in theory you can be held responsible for, if it’s found that you knew about the issue and you didn’t report it earlier. It also prevents you being inconvenienced if an unchecked issue becomes a disaster – like the door handle breaks, you get locked in the bathroom and have to call a locksmith (which you may then have to pay for). Or the flickering light is an electrical fault that causes you to lose power in the whole house. Or the dripping tap is coming from a weak pipe that then bursts and floods the apartment (again you may have to pay for things like carpet drying, repainting or water damage to apartments below you). You may think that the liability is grey in these situations, but professionals can often tell from water marks, dampness or paint damage if something has been left unattended for a while.
In any situation, tenants are always protected (or caught out) by their tenancy agreement and the condition report. All manner of complicated situations can arise and it’s always better to know your rights and obligations in advance. If you left a candle burning and started a fire this is clearly your fault. If the lease agreement says the landlord is responsible for maintaining the smoke alarms and they didn’t go off, then is it then their fault? If the lease says no candles then we are back at square one and you may be paying for walls to be repainted or worse. In situations where you have any doubts, just call your property manager and ask! If that isn’t an option, most states’ tenants union have rental rights, FAQs and tenancy issues available for download on their websites, as well as contact details to access support by email or phone.