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It’s up to the landlord to maintain a building’s common areas

Special to The Times

Question: My landlord does not keep up the common areas of our building. Doesn’t he at least have to change the light bulbs in the hallway?

Answer: Light bulbs and more. Landlords are responsible for maintaining the common areas of a rental property, which include exterior walkways, parking lots, courtyards, all corridors, stairwells and elevators. The laundry room, lobby and trash-disposal rooms are also common areas. Alleys and roofs, if accessible to tenants, are on the list.

Common sense can also define what qualifies, since the areas are simply those that are used in common by residents or their guests.

State laws generally require landlords to keep common areas clean and in good repair. Most state and local laws require “clean and safe” or “secure” housing, but the terms are vague. Sometimes case law defines them, such as in Alabama, where a statute requires locks to “function safely and effectively” to provide protection for tenants from foreseeable criminal activity.

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Lighting is a typical common-area concern. Keeping tenants in the dark invites trouble. Crimes committed as a result of inadequate lighting have led to lawsuits, prompting landlords to review their common-area lighting.

How should a tenant handle common-area problems? Start with simple communication. A landlord may not realize a light bulb has burned out. A simple phone call to the landlord is a good place to start. Follow up with a note, being precise and specific as to the nature of the problem.

What if the problem isn’t addressed or fixed? Many counties and cities have a local health department that takes complaints. Check your phone book or go online for details.

A note of caution before you call the authorities: Renters are generally required by law to take “reasonable care” of their units, plus keep common areas clean and undamaged. Tenants are also usually responsible for repairing damage that results from their neglect or abuse, and to repair damage caused by anyone for whom they are responsible, such as family, guests or pets. Be sure you have not contributed to the problem you are reporting.

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What if a common-area amenity is the problem? For example, what if a swimming pool is closed to tenants because of liability or maintenance concerns? According to some states, a reduction in rent may be justified if the amenity was included as part of the lease or rental agreement. Consult a landlord-tenant attorney or mediator for details.

Can manager remove property?

Question: My apartment is in a high-end luxury complex, and it is understood that the balconies are not to be used for storage or odd bits of furniture. Green plastic furniture is provided by the management company. In addition, we are allowed to place one table with two chairs of either green or black iron, and five plants in terra cotta pots. Anything else is out of compliance and therefore breaking the lease. The other day I received a notice stating that I was out of compliance and that within 48 hours management would enter my unit and remove any noncompliant items from my balcony. Can they do this?

Answer: There are several issues here: right of entry, right of removal, right to control what’s on the balcony, and safety. Most states have laws governing landlord entry, usually limited to common-sense reasons, such as showing the unit, making repairs or entering in an emergency. Checking with several sources, none felt removal of private property was allowed.

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The worst-case scenario would be management serving you a three-day notice “to perform covenant or quit” for violating lease terms, and threatened eviction or legal proceedings as a result of your misdeed.

The lease can limit the items allowed. In addition to aesthetic considerations, management may consider excess items on balconies a hazard, and may be limiting the number of pieces simply as a safety measure.

Reader comments may be sent to hmayspitz@aol.com.


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