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posted: 1/20/2013 5:16 AM

Landlord says tenant's destruction requires fire safety upgrades

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Q. I have owned a duplex in Marin County, Calif., for 30 years. This is strictly an income property, and both units are rented.

Recently, one of my tenants kicked in one of the entrance doors to get into the apartment. They are double-door entries and he is now claiming the lock was not working. Of course, he had never complained about it and seemed to think of this excuse when I confronted him about paying for the damage.

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I plan to demand payment, but I do have one concern. The doors are hollow-core, as they were made 30 years ago when the property was built. The building code has changed over the years and I am now being told I have to replace the front doors with solid-core doors that meet the current fire and life safety requirements.

My question is what percentage of the replacement cost should be charged to my tenant? I don't know if it is a factor, but he has lived there for 3 years.

A. Based on what you say, personally I would charge the tenant the entire amount of the damage. In my opinion, kicking in the front doors because the lock supposedly doesn't work is not justifiable unless there was a fire or life safety emergency. Your tenant could have called you or a locksmith.

The fact that the current code requires solid-core doors also is not your problem unless the doors were going to have to be replaced soon for some other reason. Anything less than the full charge is negotiable, and will depend on your willingness to share the cost based on your desire to keep the tenant content or the belief that he didn't mean to cause the damage.

The length of the tenancy can be relevant if you are attempting to determine an equitable charge against a security deposit because you are accounting for ordinary wear and tear. Common examples where length of tenancy should be considered would be painting. But in this case you have physical damage that was intentional. If your tenant had not kicked in the entry door, then you would not have to replace the doors and bring them up to current building code requirements. So I think you have grounds to justify charging him the full amount.

Q. We live next door to a single-family home that is occupied by renters. We don't have any problem with the people renting the house, but it is clear that the owner doesn't ever come by or pay attention to the condition of the landscaping. It is a bit of an eyesore, but nothing that is intolerable.

However, there is one issue that does concern us a lot, as it is a definite fire hazard. The neighboring rental property has a giant tree that is well above the roof line and has many branches that literally cover the chimney vent, which is only 20 feet from our house. We are afraid that the neighbors will use their fireplace this winter and it will take only a single hot ember to exhaust out through the chimney vent and catch this tree on fire. If that tree catches fire, then the rental house and our house and the whole neighborhood would be in danger.

We never see the renters and we doubt they will do anything about it anyway, as they certainly don't spend any time or money on the yard. The tree has wreaked havoc on the house's eaves and roof, but the owner apparently doesn't come by either. How can we deal with this?

A. You have a legitimate concern about a potentially very severe situation and I would encourage you to take a shotgun approach. Contact the tenant even if it is just leaving them a note on their front door or taping it near (not inside) where they get their mail delivery. Or just be very diligent about noticing when they leave or arrive and contact them in person.

I would also suggest you contact the owner of the property. If you don't know who the owner is for this property (or possibly they use a property manager), I suggest you check with your local jurisdiction tax records to see if you can find a name and contact information for them.

If they have a property manager paying the property taxes, then that company's or person's contact information will be indicated for that property address.

I would first send a letter to the owner or property manager as a courtesy. If that doesn't receive a favorable response, then I would suggest you go forward with your idea to contact the fire department.

• Property manager Robert Griswold is author of "Property Management for Dummies," and "Property Management Kit for Dummies," and co-author of "Real Estate Investing for Dummies." Email: Rental Q&A@rgriswold.inman@retodayradio.com.

2012, Inman News Service

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