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7 surprising owner liabilities

Risks & insurance

Owners can be held liable for damage or injury caused to or by residents or by violations of the warranty of habitability, which dictates that residents have a right to a livable state. 

Some of these things may be obvious, whereas others may catch owners off guard.

dog on couch

While owners can be responsible for pets in the property, this could also fall on the resident. (Credit: Getty Images)

1. Dogs

It’s only if the owner already knows that a dog was dangerous and could have had the dog removed from the property that the owner can be liable. 

The easiest way around this situation is to disallow pets, or at least dangerous pets, from your residence by explicitly banning them in the lease and including harsh consequences for violations. 

Some other approaches to take include:

  • Only allowing particular breeds of dogs that you have evaluated and approved.
  • Stipulate that dogs must be leashed when outside of the rental unit.
  • Allow for changes to pet policies at any time (preferably with 30 days’ notice).
  • Ensure that if the provisions are transgressed, or the dog is deemed a liability, the dog will be removed, or the lease will be ended. 
  • Demand renters insurance that includes liability coverage.
  • Consider emotional support and service animals, which are legally allowed in rental homes, and how to prepare for these animals.

This issue can benefit from flexibility because allowing pets is one of the tips and tricks to getting residents to renew their lease.

2. Criminal activity

Owners have been sued for failing to take measures to protect their residents from crime. This is more likely to be the case if the owner knew the crime or similar crimes have already happened on or near the property. 

To reduce your liability, take the following steps:

  • Follow laws that protect residents, like giving them ample lighting and proper door and window locks. 
  • When learning of a dangerous situation, take action without haste.
  • Fix security lights ASAP.
  • If there’s suspicious activity, inform the police and your residents using text, email, or updating your resident portal.
  • Consider hiring security guards or setting surveillance equipment.
  • Keep nearby trees and shrubs trimmed so that they don’t provide cover for illicit activity.

Owners have to protect their communities from the illicit activities of their residents. Owners can be sued for public nuisance, and they can be fined or subjected to penalties for crimes such as drug dealing that occur on their properties. 

To limit the likelihood of having criminal activity on your property, the following measures can be invaluable.

  • Screen residents carefully.
  • Do not rent to people who have been convicted of violent or dangerous crimes. Although, keep in mind that laws like Oakland's Fair Chance Housing Ordinance prohibit criminal background checks during the resident screening process. Make sure you follow all local ordinances.
  • Check references
  • Personal
  • Professional
  • Past owners
  • Explicitly prohibit drug dealing and other criminal activity in the lease and evict anyone who commits an infraction.
  • Consult with police the minute you discover illegal activity. 
plants on windowsill

Liabilities could include windows that are part of a rental property. (Credit: Getty Images)

3. Windows and screens

Owners and property management companies have been found liable when children die or are hurt by falling out of windows. To protect yourself from facing a similar situation, take the following precautionary measures.

  • Tell parents before their move-ins that open windows, especially low ones, are dangerous.
  • If you say you will install a window screen, it’s your responsibility to do so.
  • If a screen you installed is damaged, replace or repair it ASAP.

4. Secondhand smoke

Secondhand smoke is considered a violation of the implied warranty of habitability, which dictates it is the owner's responsibility to provide livable housing. Secondhand smoke is also a nuisance if it enters a common area or resident's unit. 

Residents with disabilities who have trouble breathing could sue owners for not providing habitable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Fair Housing Act.

Smoke can also delay an easy rental resident turnover because it takes time to remove lingering odors, correct discolored interiors, and get rid of any stains.

You can ban smoking around or in your property in your lease agreement. However, being able to smoke is something potential residenets may consider when deciding whether to move in or renew their lease. Instead, you can designate smoking areas where smoke won’t drift into units or common areas. 

Also, make sure smoke can’t travel via a duct system or drift from one balcony to another.

5. Bed bugs

Owners may be automatically liable for exterminating bed bugs and for any damages depending on the state. If it takes too long to deal with the bed bugs, the owner could be sued for violating the warranty of habitability. 

For this reason, it is paramount to be proactive and to document everything you do, especially if your property is in an area prone to bed bugs.

  • After your residents move out, immediately have the units certified bed bug free after an inspection by a licensed pest control company. Have the resident inspect the certification. 
  • Include a provision that requires synthetic covers on mattresses and bedsprings.
  • Stipulate in the lease that bed bugs must be reported and that all steps recommended by the pest control company must be followed, including the disposal of any possessions.
  • Don’t risk an infestation. Contact pest control the minute you suspect anything.

6. Slips and falls

Owners are liable for slip and fall accidents if they fail to install appropriate lighting, remove obstacles, or provide adequate accessibility. 

The most common areas where these accidents occur include:

  • Doorways
  • Stairs
  • Ramps
  • Ladders
  • Uneven surfaces
  • Crowded areas

Owners can be sued if:

  • Should have known because the risk was obvious.
  • They knew of the potential hazard but did nothing about it.

Owners are responsible for the dangerous area because they:

  • Spilled liquids or other slippery materials.
  • Didn’t repair worn or damaged areas.
  • Failed to maintain common areas like laundry rooms or backyard.

7. Harm caused by employees

Employees are the owner's responsibility, so careful screening is required. Landlords can be sued if employees harm any resident, their guests, or their property. 

Bottom line

The number of things an owner can be sued for only increases the benefit of hiring skilled and experienced property managers. This way, property managers will monitor and deal with any potential liabilities, in addition to all the other duties they perform. 

And since it’s their job to do so, property managers are less likely to neglect their owner responsibilities than an investor who’s hoping to take care of their real estate quickly because they have limited time and resources.

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