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When owning a home as a landlord, under most state and local laws it is imperative for you to maintain housing that satisfies basic habitability requirements and is in compliance with health and safety laws, which includes adequate weatherproofing, heating, water, electricity, and a clean, sanitary, and structurally safe premises. To comply with these requirements, it’s vital to make repairs to rental units as soon as possible. Furthermore, under most state laws, there is an implied “warranty of habitability” in all residential leases that the premises are fit and habitable for human habitation and that the premises will remain fit and habitable throughout the duration of the lease.

Landlords’ Responsibilities

Most large and modestly sized municipalities in Michigan operate a residential rental registration and certification program. Most of the municipalities that do so utilize the International Property Maintenance Code (IPMC) published by the International Code Council as the basis for regulating the minimum maintenance requirements for existing buildings. Some municipalities use this code exclusively while others include additional requirements.  (Be sure to check with your local municipality about which version of the IPMC they use, any amendments or if they use a different code altogether.) Regardless of which code is used, they generally include minimum requirements for light, ventilation, plumbing, mechanical, electrical, occupancy limits and fire safety while others may also have specific standards around the installation of smoke detectors and security measures.

Landlords are responsible for ensuring these standards are followed throughout their residents’ tenancy; therefore, making repairs as soon as possible is an important part of this responsibility. It’s important for the landlord to know, however, that he or she is relieved of the duty to repair and comply if the tenant’s willful or irresponsible conduct or lack of conduct has caused disrepair or violation of health or safety laws. (Note: This won’t prevent the local municipality from condemning a property due to tenant damage that goes unrepaired.)

You can obtain a copy of the IPMC by calling or visiting the RPOA office or ordering it online through the RPOA website.

Tenants’ Responsibilities

Although responsibilities can be modified in certain instances by mutual agreement between the landlord and tenant, a tenant is generally expected to pay rent on time, keep the rental property in a safe and sanitary condition, promptly notify the landlord of maintenance problems, exterminate insects that appear if they were not there when the tenant moved in, and leave the rental property in good condition.

The IPMC divides the responsibility for insect and rodent infestation differently for single-family and multi-family rentals. Tenants are 100% responsible for extermination (and cooperating with the property owner) within single-family units. However, the responsibility is shared between the owner and tenant for multi-family buildings. The definition of responsibility can be spelled out in the lease.

What Can Happen If You Do Not Make Required Repairs

The tenant must notify the landlord and explain the problem that needs repair, the importance of the repair, and when he or she would like it done. If the landlord or property manager doesn’t meet the legal responsibilities in making the necessary repairs to maintain a habitable environment for the tenant, the tenant has several options.

First, in Michigan, your tenant can elect to withhold some rent until the repair is sufficiently made. However, the state of Michigan requires that the tenant put the money aside in an escrow account—a bank account held by a court that will later be released to the landlord once the repairs are made. The tenant should send a letter stating why the rent will be withheld, where it will be deposited, and that payment will be released when the maintenance or repair problem(s) have been corrected. The amount of rent to withhold is dependent upon the cost of fixing the problem and the amount of damage the tenant has incurred because of the landlord’s failure to fix the problem. Only the most catastrophic problems warrant withholding all the rent.

Next, if the landlord fails to repair a problem in a timely manner after the tenant makes a request, the state of Michigan allows for the tenant to hire an outside party to make the necessary repairs or do it themselves after comparing the costs and choosing the most reasonable option. Once the cost of the repair is paid for by the tenant, this amount can be withheld from rent. (The RPOA advises landlords to include a clause in the lease to prevent tenants from making unapproved repairs, e.g. Tenant agrees not to make any repairs or alterations to the Premises, including repainting, remodeling, driving nails in woodwork or walls, using any adhesive items on walls, without written consent of the Landlord. The Landlord will not pay for remodeling, decorating, or any work of this kind contracted by Tenant, unless authorized in writing prior to the beginning of any renovation or remodeling. The Tenant further agrees not to remove any furnishings, fixtures, or appliances without written consent of the Landlord.)

Also, if the problem violates state or local building or health codes, your tenant has the right and may contact the local authorities to report the issue and your lack of prompt attention. Generally, if the inspectors visit the property and find a problem, you, as the landlord, could face an order to fix the problem in addition to possible fines and/or penalties. (Some tenants use complaints to municipal enforcement authorities as a way to avoid paying rent; so it’s imperative to address tenant repair requests quickly—even if they seem minor. In Michigan, once a tenant has filed a complaint, owners are prevented from filing an eviction notice for 90 days. Filing an eviction after a tenant has made a complaint is considered presumptive retaliation.)

Finally, if the problem is pervasive and disturbs the tenant’s right to live in a habitable structure, the tenant may choose to move out of the rental unit and break the lease agreement. With the proper proof, the tenant can sue the landlord for a partial refund of past rent, and if the situation warrants it, they can even sue for any discomfort, annoyance, and emotional distress caused by the inhabitable conditions.

As you can imagine, best practice for every landlord is to handle repair requests as soon as possible. Of course, major problems require more prompt attention than minor problems, but a vital element to fostering a healthy relationship with your tenant is maintaining a clear line of communication, including informing the tenant as to when and how the repairs will be made and any reasons for delays. A tenant who feels valued is always more likely to re-sign and keep the unit in great condition. Providing your tenants with a form for making repair request either in writing or online is a valuable tool that can prevent unreported issues.

Entry to Rental Property

A key element in making repairs is communicating with the tenant about the need for entry into the premises. The RPOA has a separate article providing more detail about the legalities of entering a rental property here, but, in general, a landlord is typically required to provide 24 hours’ advance notice to the tenants before entering the rental unit. If a tenant refuses entry after notice has been given, the premises may not be entered. However, in Michigan, the landlord or property manager is not required to give notice for emergency situations. If emergency entry occurs, the landlord must, within two days, notify the tenant of the date, time, and reason for the entry.  (Note:  Failure to allow the owner entry may be a lease violation depending on the lease you are using.)

Not All Tenants Make Reasonable Repair Requests. How Can You Prevent This?

If you’ve been a landlord long enough, you’ve experienced some tenants who make some unreasonable repair requests with some unreasonable time frames and can be extremely demanding. While it’s imperative as the landlord to keep the rental property in reasonable repair and to maintain a healthy and habitable environment for your tenant, the term “reasonable repair” is not defined by law. While it would certainly be reasonable for a landlord to fix a clogged drain or defective water heater, it may not be reasonable to require the landlord to repair a minor chip in a countertop or peeling wallpaper. Every tenant and situation is different, but in a desire to prevent as many disputes or legal appearances as possible, you should consider implementing the following things.

First, before your tenant takes residence of the unit, it would be beneficial to communicate expectations as a landlord and tenant regarding maintenance requests. You can differentiate the varying degrees of repairs (e.g., emergency, major problems, and minor problems), what constitutes an emergency (e.g., gas leak, flooding, defective furnace, major roof damage, etc.) and discuss the timing that maintenance requests will be addressed. For example, emergency requests will be addressed immediately, and non-emergency requests will be addressed within 24-48 hours.

Second, whenever possible, try to make sure repair requests are communicated in written format. Other communication leading up to the actual repair (i.e., notice to enter, any potential delays, etc.) and completing the repair should also be kept in written format. Therefore, if a tenant disputes anything regarding the timing of your attention to the repair, you will be able to provide a solid response and support that it is aligned with the expectations established at the beginning of tenancy.

Third, you could set up a mid-year inspection of the premises. This practice is debated between various landlords as the cost of this inspection can outweigh the benefits. By performing a mid-year inspection, you can get a better sense of how the tenant lives and be proactive about any possible repairs. In some less common cases, a repair should be made but the tenant’s lifestyle doesn’t prompt the tenant to make the request. Being proactive about repairs instead of reactive can reap large benefits.

Finally, when you’re turning a tenant, be sure to have a system in place to perform a detailed inspection of the unit. While you’re likely already doing this in the process of returning the tenant’s security deposit, take this opportunity to make any repairs for preventative purposes. It’s always easier to perform work or repairs on a unit when it’s not inhabited.

When in Doubt, Consult a Local Attorney

Landlord/tenant issues can cause a significant amount of disruption and dispute, and improperly handled maintenance requests can easily cause these issues. It’s important to know the rights of both the landlord and the tenant so do not hesitate to consult a local attorney for peace of mind and to ensure the situation is handled proactively and appropriately.