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A Tenant Seeking Repairs is at Landlord's Mercy

March 25, 2001|Leta Herman

Question: I love my apartment; however, the owner chooses to use a non-licensed, incompetent worker for the repair work. For example, once I asked the handyman to fix a leaky bathroom pipe. He ignored me repeatedly until I inquired in front of the owner. Then ensued weeks of broken appointments, hour-long repair visits, water shut-offs and temporary patches that didn't work. After my patience ran out, I called a licensed plumber who fixed the leak in record time: 15 minutes.

What is my legal right to expedient repairs? Can I bill the owner for these repair services when his handyman is not able to do the job?

Answer: Your landlord is running a business, and the quality of service she provides often depends on how good a business person she is. A good landlord will recognize that providing good service reduces turnover in apartments, thereby increasing the landlord's profits.

For some reason, however, this simple truth escapes some landlords. It doesn't even seem to matter how much money you're paying for the apartment. High-end and low-end apartments alike can have miserable service. So it's not a simple case of "you get what you paid for."

Instead the quality of service is entirely dependent on the landlord and the landlord's management personnel.

Unfortunately when you don't do their homework before moving into a building, you're stuck with the level of service your landlord provides.

"You're at the mercy of your landlord," says Janet Portman, co-author of several self-help law books, including "Renters' Rights," (Nolo Press, 2000). For details contact Nolo Press at (800) 992-6656 or go to

Once you've rented an apartment and become disillused with the landlord's level of service, there's not much you can do to remedy the situation, other than continue to demand better service or ultimately move (under the terms of your rental agreement or after your lease expires).

The landlord isn't refusing to repair your leak. He's simply not repairing it to your satisfaction.

"If it's slipshod, ugly, annoying, or takes forever, all you can do is complain about it and try to get the landlord to improve," says Portman.

The exception to this rule is when your apartment becomes uninhabitable or dangerous. The laws in most every state and most local housing codes require landlords to provide tenants basic services and a certain level of safety.

If you believe your landlord's handyman is actually making things dangerous or your apartment is no longer habitable, get legal advice from a tenant lawyer or tenant advocacy group. The Tenants Resource Directory (, a Web site maintained by the Tenants Union in Washington state, might help you find a tenant group in your area.

If you want to avoid getting crummy service from your apartment building's management, do your homework before you rent.

The homework is fairly simple, though nerve-wracking for the shy and timid since it requires knocking on neighboring apartment doors or greeting strangers in the lobby. You need to get up the nerve to ask other tenants in the building what they think about the landlord's level of service.

Getting two or more good reports from existing tenants is usually a clear indication that you'll enjoy a high-level of service in your new apartment. A negative report from a frank tenant will help you avoid getting into the kind of mess.


Leta Herman is a syndicated columnist. Questions on any aspect of apartment living can be addressed to, or Leta Herman, c/o Inman News Features, 1250 45th St. Suite 360, Emeryville, CA 94608. Distributed by Inman News Features.

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