Trying to get reimbursed by landlord after repair is made

Question: I rent an old home that I’ve had to work on quite a bit. Recently, the garage door practically fell off its hinges -- the bolts had pulled out of the rotten wood, and the chain and hinges are rusted and bent. The landlord claims I broke it, and would not reimburse me for the replacement. I just can’t believe that I’m responsible for these costs. Am I?

Answer: I wish you were writing about this problem before you went ahead and fixed it on your own. The garage door failure appears to be the result of age and use, otherwise known as the ordinary wear and tear that all aspects of a structure encounter through the years. This repair problem is the landlord’s responsibility, because it is not the result of your deliberate or careless behavior.

When landlords refuse to make needed repairs, many states including California give tenants the rights to repair them on their own (known as “repair and deduct”) or withhold rent until the problem is fixed (for very serious or dangerous problems only). Let’s assume your state is one of them.

A garage door that could come crashing down at any minute (or springs that could break, sending metal flying) are obvious safety hazards and would qualify as proper candidates for either remedy. The first step for each avenue is for tenants to give landlords notice of the problem and a reasonable amount of time in which to fix it.

When tenants withhold rent or deduct the cost of a repair from the rent check, landlords often respond with a termination notice (for unpaid rent), and when tenants hold firm, they may proceed to an eviction. Tenants defend against the eviction by proving that they justifiably and correctly used the self-help remedy.

In your situation, having already performed the repair, you might have a hard time invoking the rent-withholding or repair-and-deduct remedies, even though they would have been appropriate. That’s because the landlord might argue he wasn’t given adequate notice, or a sufficient time to respond, as required under the law.

All may not be lost, however. One option is to file a lawsuit in Small Claims Court, where you’ll argue that the landlord stands to be “unjustly enriched” unless he reimburses you for the repair’s cost.

This is not a case of whimsical or cosmetic work that may improve the property but were not necessary -- for instance, installing a hot tub without authorization. This was a dangerous condition that had to be addressed, and although you didn’t play by the book, placing responsibility on the landlord -- should not change.

--Janet Portman, Inman News