Put conditions in writing when letting tenant alter property

Question: I own a second home that I rent to a couple. They have lived there for eight months. Recently, the wife told me they would like to install a 220-volt electrical outlet in the garage so that they can use a heavy-duty washer/dryer combo. I trust them, but I still want to check whether I am required to allow them to make this alteration and, if so, what my rights are if something goes wrong.

Answer: Hopefully, you have a carefully drafted rental agreement that precludes any physical alterations to the rental unit without your permission. This type of clause should be in every rental agreement to establish a landlord's right to control this type of request.

Absent that type of clause, a tenant has a right to generally make changes in the rental property, but this type of alteration probably cannot be made without your consent, even if you don't have a specific clause in your rental agreement.

If you decide to allow the tenants to install this electrical outlet, because it improves the value of your property or because you want to keep them happy, there are several precautions you should take. First, make sure the work is done by a competent licensed electrician, not just a handy tenant. Second, make sure all required building permits are obtained; otherwise you might later have to pay to remove the alteration if a building inspector becomes aware that an unpermitted alteration was made. Clearance should also be obtained from the utility that supplies the electricity.

The tenants should be asked to pay any resulting increase in the utility bill and to obtain renter's insurance, which will protect you in case some liability arises from the installation or the subsequent use of the new 220-volt service.

Finally, you should have the tenants acknowledge that the new wiring and outlet are fixtures that remain with the property after they vacate. This suggestion may sound unnecessary, but disputes have arisen when a tenant wanted to remove alterations upon leaving. All these conditions should be documented in a written agreement signed by you and the tenants before any work is done so that these conditions are clear to both sides.

Eichner is director of Housing Counseling Programs for Project Sentinel, a mediation service based in Sunnyvale, Calif. To submit a question, go to http://www.housing.org.

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