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Renter Mentor: Regarding Damages to Appliances

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Renting a home perfectly fits the lifestyle of some. Instead of assuming the responsibilities of home ownership, like mortgage payments and property taxes, as a tenant — a renter — you’re generally not financially responsible for the structure you live in. However, as those of us who have rented homes before know, at the end of the lease, you’re expected to deliver the rental unit in the same state as it was when you accepted the key, aside from acceptable wear and tear. Most residential leases will include some verbiage that details what is and is not acceptable regarding the condition of the rental unit.

But if you’re renting a unit that comes with appliances, it can be confusing to know who’s responsible in the event your dishwasher or washing machine, for example, breaks down. And a quick search on the Internet reveals all sorts of answers, varying from horror stories about property owners who refuse to perform maintenance on anything, let alone appliances, to anecdotes about landlords who are meticulous about upkeep. So how can you know what your rights and obligations are when it comes to damages to appliances in a rental home?

How to Know Who’s Responsible for Repairs

Landlord and tenant rights vary from state to state, but there are a number of general guidelines to keep in mind when determining who’s responsible for repairs. According to Massachusetts’ Guide to Landlord/Tenant Rights, in that state, it’s the landlord’s responsibility to make—and maintain for the duration of the lease—a rental unit habitable, or fit to live in. In addition, the Guide states, “the tenant must pay rent, follow the rules agreed upon with the landlord, and accept responsibility for any damage to the apartment that is more than just ‘normal wear and tear’ (whether caused by the tenant or caused by a guest of the tenant).”

There are three things to consider:

  1. First, note that the term “habitable” is used, meaning those amenities that render a unit fit for use, such as sanitation, plumbing, heating and electric. However, appliances such as washers, dryers, dishwashers and refrigerators aren’t generally considered to be essential. While these details apply in Massachusetts, your state’s regulations may vary, so consult your state’s governmental websites for information relevant to your situation. If a rental unit comes equipped with one or more appliances, it can be negotiated who takes responsibility for any repairs. Though most property owners tend to assume responsibility, it’s not uncommon for renters to do so in exchange for a lower rent.
  2. Second, a tenant is obligated to abide by the terms and conditions of the rental contract. That’s why it’s imperative to completely read any lease before signing and, if necessary, ask questions or even negotiate points you’d like to see changed. It’s also important to be sure a landlord doesn’t include illegal rules, such as forcing the tenant to perform repairs or upkeep beyond his apartment.
  3. And third, a tenant must accept responsibility for damages caused by himself or any children, guests or pets. Because these damages aren’t due to normal wear and tear, they’re not the landlord’s responsibility. However, if a power surge blows out appliances in a rental unit, that may be covered by a landlord’s insurance policy and the property owner may consider filing an claim, depending the specifics of the situation.

Keep these guidelines in mind for a general idea of renters’ responsibilities. In addition, always carefully read your lease and document the condition of all appliances to help resolve any possible conflicts. Consult your state’s landlord and tenants rights on your state government’s website.