When to call your landlord
A fire or flooded apartment may be obvious call-worthy emergencies, but what about the stuff that doesn't set off alarms? Here's help deciding whether and when to call your landlord in 14 different scenarios.
One of the biggest advantages to being a renter is that you don't have to deal with many of the hassles that come with homeownership, such as ongoing maintenance and major repairs. If your heater breaks, you call the landlord. If your roof is caving in, you call the landlord.
But when less obvious issues arise, it can be tough to know whether you should call for help or handle things yourself. You don't want to whine about every little thing or pester a busy landlord who may have dozens of tenants. On the other hand, you could be violating your lease by not calling.
Here are some common scenarios that leave many tenants wondering. We'll tell you whether you should call, when to call and why you should call.
Scenario No. 1: You wake up at 3 a.m. to a water leak that has soaked your entire apartment.
Call your landlord. Now.
"One of the reasons you (need to call) is because you actually have a duty to make sure that things don't get worse," says attorney Janet Portman, author of "Every Tenant's Legal Guide."
The landlord will likely be more familiar with the property than you. Your landlord may know where the water main is, how to turn it off and where the leak may be coming from.
"If you think it's rude to call in the middle of the night, you've deprived yourself of knowledge that could have lessened the damage," Portman says.
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"Fire, flood or blood, as we say," says Robert Griswold, a longtime property manager who wrote "Property Management for Dummies."
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Scenario No. 2: Your smoke detector doesn't seem to be working.
Before calling your landlord, make sure that the batteries in the detector aren't dead and that the detector is attached correctly to the wall or ceiling. Once you're sure it's not an issue you can easily correct, contact your landlord.
In most states, landlords are required to provide working smoke detectors. The landlord should bring a new detector over or ask you to replace it and reimburse you.
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Griswold says not to delay in contacting your landlord when your detector's not working. "There have been so many cases where people have died," he says.
Scenario No. 3: You want to install new shelving and paint the kitchen wall.
You should definitely get permission before making any improvements or alterations in your rental. If the change you want to make will improve the unit or increase its value, your landlord may even be willing to pitch in with money or labor. But in some cases, a landlord can hold onto your safety deposit to undo your "improvements" if you failed to ask permission.
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Scenario No. 4: You see a rat in your kitchen.
Call your landlord. How soon to call depends on how threatened you and your family feel.
"If you have kids around, for instance, that rat needs to be dealt with right away," says Bill Deegan, executive director of the American Tenants Association. "They can bite."
If the rodent has scurried back into its hiding place under a cabinet and you feel safe enough in your bedroom upstairs with the door closed, you can put off that call until a reasonable hour. Do call your landlord the next day, however, even if it's a weekend.
"It's certainly a serious matter in terms of health and safety," Portman says.
And while a landlord is usually the one responsible for calling in a pest-control company and eliminating a pest problem, tenants are sometimes the cause of the problem and won't be off the hook.
"If your terrible housekeeping has invited the ants in, for example … they can charge you for that service," Portman says.
Read more about household pests: “12 things that really go bump in the night”
Scenario No. 5: You fall down the stairs and break your leg.
First, ask yourself why you fell. Are these stairs dangerous or did you just have too many martinis?
If you're at fault, take care of it yourself. See a doctor, and be more careful.
But if your home has wobbly, rotting or uneven stairs, your landlord is likely at fault. It doesn't matter whether you knew the stairs were dangerous. You may have mentioned your concern the day you moved in and your landlord said he didn't have the money to fix the problem. His inability to pay for new stairs does not excuse him of his responsibility to provide a safe and habitable residence.
Let your landlord know what happened, but begin to document your case immediately. See a doctor. Keep a pain log. Take pictures of the premises where you were injured.
What about a lawyer? That's always an option to bear in mind, if your landlord is being uncooperative. But Deegan, Griswold and Portman all agree that it's best to resolve the situation without attorneys. Many leases have a mediation clause that will give you guidance on how to handle disputes. By staying out of court, you'll save money and, hopefully, retain a friendlier relationship with your landlord.
Read more about renters' rights at Nolo.com.
Scenario No. 6: You find mold in your apartment.
Call your landlord, but wait until normal weekday business hours. Most visible household mold, particularly in the bathroom, is the result of poor housekeeping and is harmless.
"The only stuff you need to worry about is usually stuff you can't even see: soaked drywall, subfloors, the back of your closet," Portman says.
That said, the mere mention of mold will probably bring your landlord over to take a look, as some mold can be a serious health threat. And if it's anything other than a little mold in the shower, it's possible that there is a pipe or drainage leak somewhere.
"Every landlord who is concerned about maintenance is going to want to know about that," Portman says. "That's got to be dealt with."
But that mold in the shower is something you can take care of yourself. Make sure your bathroom is getting enough air circulation, and be more diligent in your cleaning.
"You need to be involved in prevention," Griswold says.