Plumbing can be a tricky issue within the landlord/tenant relationship. Under California law, landlords must provide habitable housing for tenants. That means running water, a safe property, and of course, flushing toilets. But here’s the problem: Many times, a backed-up toilet is caused by the tenant’s own negligence in using these facilities. Where does California code draw the line? Are plumbing problems always the landlord’s responsibility, or is the tenant responsible for fixing a clogged drain or bathroom toilet?
What Are the Most Common Plumbing Problems Landlords Face?
Property owners tend to groan when they hear there’s a plumbing issue in their unit. Plumbing problems are not usually something you can wait around to repair, and they often add unexpected costs to the bottom line. Even worse, plumbing problems can stem from the tenants themselves, which makes for a sticky situation between the renter and the landlord. Some of the most common plumbing problems faced by landlords include:
- Clogged sinks or toilets.
- Water pressure problems.
- Leaky faucets.
- Pipe leaks.
- Running toilets.
The question most new property owners ask is whether it’s the tenant or landlord who is responsible for fixing the plumbing issue. The answer in California is: It depends!
Is the Tenant or Landlord Responsible for a Clogged Drain?
California code is actually pretty clear on this topic. The issue is twofold:
- The property owner is tasked with providing habitable housing that meets all local and state building and health codes. From leak-proof ceilings and working smoke detectors to properly functioning furnaces and flushing toilets—all are the property owner’s responsibility.
- If the tenant breaks these fixtures, the landlord is not responsible. Tenant negligence or outright damaging of the facility is their responsibility—although as a landlord, it might be your problem.
How can you know when it’s the tenant’s responsibility? Tenants can unfortunately cause all kinds of damage to your property. Some of this can be deliberate, but most of the time, the damage is caused by a simple lack of common sense or an understanding of what these systems can handle.
Take plumbing as an example. Tenants can and have flushed items down the toilet that clog these systems. They can do the same with the garbage disposal. There are all kinds of tricks related to the disposal system that your tenant simply may not know. For example, always using cold water to flush the system and avoiding putting grease or eggshells into the disposal. We’ve even seen tenants put non-food items into the disposal and inadvertently burn up the unit’s motor. Tenants can flush sanitary items or a diaper down the toilet. But there are also accidents, such as a wallet that pops out of a back pocket and into a flushed toilet – or simply using too much toilet paper for an overly large poop. It happens!
It may be helpful to remind tenants that plumbers can often find and retrieve whatever is clogging the toilet or disposal. It’s never “out of sight and out of mind” once you flush something or run it down the drain. All of your human debris comes out somewhere. Your renters that are more inclined to overload a plumbing system or misuse a garbage disposal may be less likely to do so if they realize that these units are not bottomless holes.
Are Landlords Always Responsible for Plumbing Issues?
While California Civil Code (section 1941) says that rentals must have “a working toilet, wash basin, and bathtub or shower,” there are times when plumbing problems are not the landlord’s responsibility. In this, California law is fairly clear: if the tenant breaks it, the tenant pays for it.
Here are some typical scenarios that illustrate whether the plumbing problems are the landlord’s responsibility or the tenants:
- The tenant regularly flushes sanitary products down the toilet until one day, it overflows. Who is responsible? Of course, the tenant.
- The toilet won’t stop running and your water bill is increasing. Who is responsible? The property owner.
- The water line breaks at the feeder line coming in from the street on your single-family owned property. Who is responsible? The owner, not the tenant.
- The tenant cleans out their potted plant in the kitchen sink. The dirt and debris flow into the sink. A week later the garbage disposal stops and the sink backs up. Who is responsible? The tenant.
What happens in these situations? Some property owners will go ahead and pay out of pocket for the repair. If it’s the tenant’s responsibility, the landlord can bill them for the repair. Some property owners allow the tenant to call their own repair person, fix, and pay for it themselves. Under California law, if the plumbing or other housing systems repair is clearly the responsibility of the landlord, they must make the repair quickly. However, if they do not, the tenant can arrange the repair and deduct the cost from their rent that month. There is a caveat under the law that says the repair must cost less than a month’s rent, however. If the plumbing problem is an egregious one and not repaired quickly, the tenant also has the option of moving out of the unit.
Your lease agreement should carefully spell out these requirements and responsibilities with California law as your guidepost. Small claims court is full of these types of tenant vs. landlord cases, but the law, for the most part, is fairly clear.
Plumbing Tips for Tenants and Landlords
Sometimes the tenant/landlord relationship can become adversarial, and this is an absolute shame. Property managers have a responsibility to maintain these relationships in a way that is mutually beneficial for the landlord and the tenant.
When it comes to plumbing maintenance and repair, the truth is your tenants can actually be your ally in this area. A leaking tub faucet can drive up water bills fast. Good landlords should rely heavily on their tenants for fast reporting of broken or malfunctioning systems. Also, regular inspections, which are allowed under the law, can help you spot potential maintenance problems early. It also gives your property maintenance team a chance to educate tenants in areas where they may be lacking.
Tenant Planet offers property owners a turnkey solution for maintaining tenant relationships and their properties. Talk with our team today about how we can make property ownership a hassle-free experience.