It's the Law | “You never fix anything!”

Posted By: Nathan Lybarger Blog ,

How many times have we heard this?  It’s inevitable.  You have a resident who hasn’t made their monthly rent payment.  When you send them their late rent notice, you’re pelted with a barrage of maintenance complaints.  There’s no telling what they might mention, but they all boil down to the same theme: “You never fix anything!”

Most of the time, you can correctly identify these complaints as a smokescreen for their late rent.  But when the resident tries to turn it into a legal issue, we can follow these tips to be sure we give ourselves the best defense to a resident’s allegations.

Communication. 

From a strictly statutory standpoint, the law requires that before a resident can exercise their remedies for failures in maintenance, they must provide the landlord with written notice of those failures.  Because the definition of “written” notice has become blurred with the growth in digital signatures and email communications, we can safely assume that if a resident has communicated their maintenance issues in any medium, they’ve satisfied their obligations under the law.  From there, if the maintenance issues go unresolved, the resident may invoke some of their own legal remedies.  Always be on the lookout for this kind of resident communication, it could very well be an indication that the resident is positioning themselves to make a legal claim.

Diligence. 

Of course, it’s not management’s responsibility to prevent an HVAC system from failing or to guarantee that a dishwasher will always drain properly.  It is management’s responsibility to address those issues when they arise.  The past couple of years have strained the labor force at every level, and property maintenance is no exception.  Combined with persisting supply chain issues, we have a perfect storm for maintenance headaches.  Even given these circumstances, our responsibility to maintain the premises remains.  A delay could be excusable if the causes are out of management’s control, but we must continue to make reasonable and diligent efforts to minimize these delays.  It’s almost equally important to communicate these delays and expected timetables with the resident not only to appease them but also to affirm that management is eager and active in addressing the concerns.

Documentation. 

All the efforts you’ve made to correct or address maintenance issues should be well-documented – in management’s internal notes system, in email correspondence, by maintenance personnel, and by third-party vendors.  Not only is this important in proving our efforts to address known issues, but it can also be important in showing that a resident failed to timely report some of these items.  In this area, it’s making a policy and sticking to it that is the key to success.  To the best of our ability, maintenance requests should be submitted and addressed the same way every time.  When the resident makes their accusations, we can testify in court that we always receive maintenance requests in that way and that if we don’t have a record of the request, it wasn’t submitted.

There’s never a guarantee when these cases are presented in court, but following these tips can help give you the best chance of success if and when it becomes necessary. 

Nathan Lybarger

Law Office of Hall & Associates