For homeowners, it’s clear who has to pay when an appliance breaks—handling household repairs is one of the many responsibilities of owning property. But as a renter, your obligation to appliance upkeep isn’t so black and white.
Under federal law, tenants have the right to a habitable home or a safe, sanitary, and functional home. The house is technically uninhabitable if the broken appliance is serious—like a furnace in the winter. But if the broken appliance is a refrigerator or oven, the situation is open to interpretation. Each state has its standards for rental repairs.
For example, in most states, renters can withhold rental payment to a landlord who hasn’t made repairs necessary for a unit to be habitable. However, tenants have to put their repair requests in writing in Alabama, and landlords have 14 days to make the situation right. And in Mississippi, if a landlord fails to make a necessary repair within 30 days, tenants can pay for the repairs out of their pocket and deduct the cost from their rent.
As a renter, you’re bound to have an appliance bust on you at some point. Below, we clarify who’s on the hook for the repair and what your best course of action is—no matter where you live.
The landlord is responsible if…
In most rental situations, the landlord will respond if an appliance breaks because, ultimately, it is their property.
“Even if it is outlined in the lease that the tenant is responsible for repairs, if they’re not taking care of it, the landlord will have to repair eventually,” says Christopher Avallon, a real estate broker at the Avallon Real Estate Group in central New Jersey. “A landlord may choose to add the cost of repair to the rent or deduct it from the security deposit.”
The renter is responsible if…
In specific cases, however, the tenant is responsible for appliance repairs.
“If the appliances are supplied by the tenants, they are supposed to pay for the repairs and maintenance,” says Kenneth Reed, a real estate investor at Better Home Buyers in Smyrna, GA. “Then when the lease is terminated, the tenant can also take the appliances.”
This is most likely to happen with washers and dryers or refrigerators. Still, it’s far less likely to be the case with appliances like ovens since they usually come with a rental property.
It depends if
Things get murky when a tenant’s negligence is called into question.
“There are cases when tenants deliberately or negligently damage something,” says Tomas Satas, founder and CEO of Windy City HomeBuyer in Chicago. “This could happen with a cracked glass top of an electric stove, a broken oven door, broken refrigerator shelving, a dishwasher drain clogged with food, or another incident where damage could have been avoided.”
If it’s not crystal-clear who’s responsible—and no one wants to take responsibility for the repair—your best course of action is to review your lease. But don’t be surprised if you don’t like what you find.
“Some landlords have reduced their overhead costs by specifically stating in the lease that they are only responsible for broken appliances and fixtures if the total cost is over $75,” says Brad Biren, a tax attorney in Des Moines, IA. “If your contract does not have such a provision, there will be another clause that will address how to report repairs to the landlord and how much time they have to remedy the issue.”
What if the problem hasn’t been fixed?
Suppose there’s nothing in the contract addressing repairs. In that case, you may have to bring the matter to small-claims court, where applicable statutes and related case law will be applied.
“If a fixture is related to the health and welfare of a tenant—such as a broken furnace in the winter—the landlord will be forced to pay for the repair,” Biren says. “But the law is much less clear on items like dishwashers or dryers.”
No matter the broken appliance or how it happened, if it’s crucial to your mode of living to have it repaired, alert your landlord immediately and politely to the issue, with a copy of your lease in hand for reference. Also, keep a record of any conversations you have, agreements on repairs (verbal or otherwise), and receipts for any supplies you purchased or services you paid for to get an item repaired. You may need all of that evidence if you do decide to take your landlord to court.
Going to a small-claims court should be the last resort for everyone involved because it does cost money and time. Before taking that step, or moving out, see if you and your landlord can come to mutually agreeable terms.