A good rule: Don't mess with landlord's property

May 22, 1994|By George B. Laurent

A golden rule: A tenant should not make improvements or repairs to a landlord's property without the permission of the landlord.

Such permission should be in writing. And a tenant should not dispose of a landlord's property without receiving written permission.

There are numerous instances where tenants may ask a landlord if they can get rid of old wall-to-wall carpeting or an old refrigerator, no longer working properly, in order to replace it with a new refrigerator owned by the tenant. Permission often is given orally only to be denied at the end of the tenancy.

A tenant may have had a furnace problem on a weekend, had it fixed and wants to deduct it from the rent. The landlord may refuse to be responsible for the repair and may take the tenant to Rent Court, where the tenant will have a hard time because there is no law giving the tenant the right to make a repair and to deduct it from the rent -- even in an emergency. (The tenant may have a case for Small Claims Court, depending on the circumstances.)

Strange as it seems, some tenants despairing of any action by the landlord, actually make hundreds of dollars of repairs and improvements to a landlord's property without permission or written promise of being compensated for the repairs. Then the tenant decides to leave or has a dispute with the landlord, who refuses to renew the lease. The tenant now wants to be compensated for labor and expenses but has no real claim on the landlord.

(If one has a year's lease and the apartment needs painting, it may well be worth the tenant's expense and labor to paint the apartment with the same color paint -- preferably with the landlord's permission -- but it is not wise to do more than will be "used up" in a year.)

Many tenants want to know if they make improvements to the property whether they can take the improvements with them when they leave.

The general principle: If the improvement becomes an integral part of the property, then the tenant must leave the improvement. Thus, if a tenant replaces glass in a window, uses his nails to repair loose steps, for example, the improvements should be left. On the other hand, if the improvements, even if attached to the premises, can be removed without serious damage to the premises, then the improvements may be removed -- such as bookshelves, wall-to-wall carpeting, shrubbery. Such removal should occur before the tenant surrenders the property.

Finally, both tenants and landlords should be careful about oral agreements for tenants to make repairs in lieu of rent or for reduced rent. There should be a careful written agreement on how much is to be done, for example, one coat of paint or two coats; by when; the quality of the supplies; who pays what; and the terms of the tenancy when the work is done.

George B. Laurent is executive director of BNI, or Baltimore Neighborhoods Inc., a private nonprofit group that works to resolve tenant-landlord problems and to eliminate housing discrimination.

QUESTIONS?

Send questions to BNI, 2217 St. Paul St., Baltimore 21218. Or comment on Sundial, The Baltimore Sun's telephone information service, at (410) 783-1800 (268-7736 in Anne Arundel County, 836-5028 in Harford County, 848-0338 in Carroll County). Using a touch-tone phone, punch in the four-digit code 6171 after you hear the greeting.

For questions about specific tenant-landlord problems, call the BNI staff at (410) 243-6007.

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