Should You Have Known?
April 1, 2003
“But I didn’t know!” Maybe you should have. As a landlord you are responsible for knowing about the dangers and potential dangers present on your rental property. If it is open and obvious, or with a little investigation you could have known about it, you are liable for anyone, tenants, their guests, tradespeople, and maybe even criminals, who is injured on your property as a result of the situation you should have known about.
That requires investigation on your part. The most obvious thing to investigate are any hazards that could lead to injury. Those are almost countless, ranging from loose stair treads and handrails to malfunctioning gates around the swimming pool. With a checklist and careful observation, you can spot them.
There’s more, though. Meet Joe Landlord. He got a real deal from Real Cheap Contractors when he turned the big old house he bought for a song into four apartments. Saved him $100 over those other contractors who had to pay for licenses and bonding, building permits, and all that useless stuff that “just drives prices up.”
Then, after he got all the units rented, a burglar broke into one of the apartments, beat up Sue Tenant, and stole her TV, VCR and stereo. Next thing he knew, there was the letter carrier asking him to sign for the Certified Mail from a lawyer demanding compensation for Sue Tenant. Seems the job that Real Cheap Contractors did was real cheap, all right.
They had used substandard door locks, locks that violated the Uniform Building Security Code requirements. The lawyer claims that Joe had circumvented the whole code process thus “demonstrating a profit motive over tenant safety.”
When you sign on to be a landlord, you undertake a responsibility to make sure tenants get a place to live that is “habitable.” Specifically these are health and safety issues including structural integrity, weathertightness, plumbing and sanitation, water and hot water, heating and cooling, electrical service, adequate exits, and fire safety.
You certainly have an obligation to ensure that all common areas are safe and free of hazards, but you also have an obligation to your other tenants and your own investments to make sure that the living area of your tenants’ homes are free of filth and debris and fire hazards. One tenant’s carelessness could result in harm to another tenant when fire safety is at issue, or when filthy conditions invite vermin. You should have known.
Some things you could not know, of course. These are things that neither you nor a building maintenance professional could have spotted with an inspection. They are also random criminal activities the result of which have nothing to do with the care you have taken to see that your tenants and your property are secure.
Even so, as an owner of investment property, where people make their homes and rightfully expect reasonable care by their landlord, you need to know what you should, look for things you could know and maybe, on a really lucky day, even find things that you couldn’t be expected to know about.