So, your property is great. Your tenants love their home and your investment is ticking along nicely for you. But wait, suddenly you get a strange contractors invoice in the mail and you are struggling to get your head around what issue the invoice is referring to. Has your tenant carried out works behind you back?
This is an all too common scenario and when things go wrong unauthorized repairs or works can be a major headache for you and one that could require considerable attention.
What steps should you take to rectify this problem and what can you do in the future to avoid this kind of thing happening again? In this brief guide I intend to give you the tools to make this process easier and give you slightly more clarity over what you can do to rectify any works that have been carried out at your property without your authorization.
What are Unauthorized Repairs?
Unauthorized repairs or works would be anything that the tenants give authority for without your consent. In a lot of cases it could be damage that they have done that they have had fixed and were hoping to charge you for. Occasionally it could be works they have carried out that you were disputing with them or it simply could be things they have tried to have fixed with the hope of you not finding out.
Each case would need to be handled differently and each case presents you with a different set of problems to face in terms of who is responsible, who should pay and who can authorize the works. Let’s look at each of these cases in isolation and talk over what you can do in each scenario.
What to Do?
The Sneak Job. The tenants have carried out works to improve the space (in their opinion) and are trying to get you to pay for it. This is a simple case of unauthorized works. The tenants have gone outside of their contract and had works carried out at your property, which is categorically not allowed within their contract.
At the point that you find out about this, you would need to contact the tenants immediately. You would need to explain to them that their contract does not give them the right to carry out works on the property without your approval and that they would now be responsible for paying for the cost of the works. Plus potentially the cost of repairing any substandard works that they had carried out.
This may involve a lengthy discussion and even legal action on your part, but in the vast majority of instances the law would be on your side. Should the tenants simply refuse to pay, you do of course have the right to start eviction proceedings and potentially claim any damages from their security deposit.
The Dispute. This is a slightly trickier situation and one that in some locations will be far from black and white. As a landlord the vast majority of contracts will require you to keep the property in good order. This tends to include fixtures, fittings and any utilities supplies. So, if the problem that the tenants are fixing is deemed your responsibility you could find yourself saddled with a hefty bill.
Whilst there may be grounds for you to claim that the works do not meet your standards; and as such will require the tenants to pay for the works to be fixed. You will more than likely have to pay for the cost of getting the issue fixed in the long run as the ultimate responsibility may rest with you.
These disputed issues tend to be a massive headache and involve lots of back and forth with tenants, property managers and potentially lawyers. Any contract you have with your tenants should set out clearly each parties responsibilities in terms of maintenance and repairs. This should in theory negate any misunderstanding in terms of who is responsible for what within the property.
Try avoiding disputes by taking care of any repairs that you are liable for in a timely fashion (most areas have set timeframes for specific issues), this will avoid costly legal issues, wasted time and the souring of a potentially positive landlord, tenant relationship.
Hidden Repairs. Some tenants may break things or cause damage to your property and just not tell you. They will then have the problem fixed by their own contractor and not tell you anything. You may only find out about the works once the tenants have left and you carry out an inventory.
Subpar, unauthorized works fall outside of the realms of fair wear and tear and would certainly be something you can charge the outgoing tenants for. The cost of “putting right” the tenant’s repairs could be charged against their security deposit or you could bill them directly.
Either way, this scenario tends to be a little clearer and is often resolved in your favour, either via negotiation or through legal action.
Each of this scenarios are annoying and potentially time consuming problems, but you will find that each of them can be handled in the same way-
- Call your broker or property manager. You will need to speak to whoever is managing your property (if it is not you) and try to get to the bottom of what exactly has happened. Was the property manager aware of an issue that wasn’t communicated to you or did the tenants steam ahead and authorize works from nowhere?
- Speak to the tenants. Find out why they had any works completed and why you were not informed. Try to get to the bottom of the issue and find out if they were trying to hide something from you or have an issue with the way you have handled something.
- Inform the tenants that you expect the works to be paid for by them. This can be done formally through an invoice and accompanying legal letter or you can do this via email or letter yourself. In this situation it is best to keep a paper trail of communications incase the problem has to go to court.
- Threat of eviction. If the tenants refuse to pay, my advice would be to threaten them with eviction (providing your area allows this legally). This threat can be real or fake, but the hope would be that the threat of serious action will force them to pay for the works they have authorized.
- Eviction. If all else fails it may be necessary (again, if you are legally allowed) to begin eviction proceedings against your tenants. These proceedings should take into account any unpaid rent, utilities and the cost of the unauthorized works. At this stage it is worth pointing out that a court may decide to side (slightly) with the tenant and order them to pay for the works instead of a straight eviction meaning that they could stay in the property provided they clear the balance of the works. This could prove to be a tricky situation to handle for a landlord as you would be stuck with disgruntled tenants; not an ideal situation.
There are of course some situations where the tenants can carry out works on your behalf and then invoice you. From time to time the tenants may be faced with an emergency that could cause harm to them or to the property. Should you not be contactable, most contracts will allow the tenants to carry out works to remedy the issue and charge the works back to you once they have been completed.
This scenario should be covered in any contract you have on the property and the contract should make it clear the steps the tenants must take to contact you or your property manager prior to carrying out any emergency works.
How to Avoid
When it comes to unauthorized works, avoidance has always been the best course of action in my opinion. If you have a positive, communicative relationship with your tenants you should be able to avoid any disputes and the need for your tenants to hide anything from you.
Make sure that your tenants understand that you are prepared to be civil. That you understand that issues do arise from time to time and that even if the problem is the fault of the tenants they should not feel the need to hide anything from you.
Ensure that you carry out any works required of you in a timely manner. By you repairing problems quickly and making sure that the tenants have an enjoyable experience living in your property you will make it easier for them to feel like they can communicate problems with you.
My view has always been that good landlords attract go tenants. If you do what is required of you the tenants will do likewise and you will greatly reduce the risk of unauthorized works being carried out at your property.
What is the Tenant’s Responsibility?
Not all works will fall at the feet of the landlord and there are some maintenance issues that are undoubtedly the tenants responsibility. Things such as changing light bulbs, unblocking drains and replacing bath plugs all fall under the tenants remit and as such any of these works should be carried out by and charged to the tenant.
A good idea in terms of “tenantly works”, is for you to leave a basic “How to Guide” inside the property, this ensures that the tenants understand their role in the upkeep of the property and gives them a guide should the property have any quirks that they need to be aware of.
One final point you must be conscious of when looking at whether the works should be deemed the tenant’s responsibility or yours is the matter of neglect. If the tenant notices a leaking tap in the bathroom and then fails to tell you, when this leaking tap damages the wall behind the sink causing the whole fixture to be replaced this would be the tenant’s responsibility.
The likelihood is that you would have to pay to have it fixed and then charge the amount back to the tenants. When it comes to unauthorized works, it pays to get to the bottom of who’s responsibility the works are before arguing over who pays. Again, this is something that should be laid down in your contract prior to the tenants taking occupancy.
As tricky as unauthorized works are to deal with, they can absolutely be avoided and ironed out completely with a little understanding from both sides and a well written legal agreement between the two parties.
Have your broker or property manager arrange a thorough contract that gives clear guidance on who is liable for what works within the property and what the tenants can and can’t authorise.
Ensure upon signing the agreement that both you and the tenants understand the legal requirements of the contract fully and know what you have to do to rectify issues that arise at the property.
Preparing for the worst at the beginning of the tenancy will put you in a great position to handle any problems that occur during the tenancy. Landlords who seem intent on only putting in place legally weak contracts are often caught out when problems arise.
My motto to leave you with would be with contracts, prepare for the worst and hope for best. If you are fully protected and you understand your role in the contract, unauthorized works, hopefully will not be an issue.