Why landlord is wrong to charge for locksmith repairs

Robert Griswold
Inman News

Question: I have been a tenant in a 30-unit apartment building for more than seven years. A few months back, I went to use my key in the front door of the lobby entrance to the building and the key got stuck in the lobby door. It could not be withdrawn, no matter how I wiggled it or how hard I tried. I was able to ring a friend and get in but I was concerned as no one else would now be able to enter the building with my key still stuck in the door. I could have propped the door open, but people will normally close the door due to security concerns.

Since this was a Saturday morning, the management was not available and I had no idea when or if they might return before Monday, so I tried to free the key by removing the lock. I got a screwdriver from my apartment and removed the lock mechanism. Unfortunately, my key still would not release from the lock; it was stuck solid.

I finally did reach the manager, who was very upset that I had removed the lock. He then informed me that the owner would be upset because a locksmith would have to be called to fix and reinstall the lock, and that I would have to pay for this work. I replied that the lock was poorly maintained and at least one other tenant had experienced problems with it. Why hadn’t it been repaired when the first incident occurred instead of waiting for a complete breakdown? He said the owner is a “cheap SOB” and he doesn’t repair anything that isn’t totally broken. I replied that no matter what, whether I had left the key in the door or not, a locksmith would still have to be called!

Approximately four months have passed and I assumed that the logical decision had been made to forget about trying to charge me for any locksmith services. However, I was surprised to recently receive a bill for the locksmith services that is more than $300! Should I be held responsible for the repairs to the lobby front-door lock?

Property manager Griswold replies:

You should not be charged for the locksmith, as what you described is normal wear and tear or reasonable usage of the building, not negligence or vandalism on your part. Thus, the landlord should pay for these usual and anticipated costs of doing business. Building components wear out over time and normal usage.

Imagine if your landlord had an emergency and needed to borrow your car that had nearly 50,000 miles on the original set of tires. The landlord drives cautiously for only 1-2 miles but one of the nearly bald tires blows out. Is your landlord responsible for buying you a new tire? I wouldn’t think so, although the situation I described is more likely to create a feeling of contributing something towards the new tire; but clearly it wasn’t the landlord who should be held responsible for the tire blowing out coincidentally with his borrowing the car. I am sure you get my point.

Your landlord should remember that preventive maintenance can be less expensive than emergency repairs and maybe be more proactive when building components begin to show signs of needing service or replacement. It would probably have cost only a few dollars to routinely lubricate and adjust the front-entry-door lock rather than wait for it to fail and eat your key!

Question: My mother’s garden is being overrun by her neighbor’s ivy and bamboo. Is there any law that says the neighbor must pay to remove the encroaching plants from her garden?

Landlord attorney James McKinley replies:

Gardens are great, so long as they stay on their side of the fence. Plants and roots that creep across the property line or spread underground are considered encroaching plants. In every state you have the right to remove the plants or roots that invade your property, with certain restrictions.

First, you may not harm the health of the plant. You can prune back only what is on your property. Second, you may not trespass onto your neighbor’s property. This includes leaning over into the adjacent air space to prune or pull out invading plants. You must get permission to go onto their property first.

Most jurisdictions have laws regarding general nuisance claims. Your mother could initiate an action for damages and to abate the nuisance, or an action to recover the cost of abating the nuisance. However, before initiating legal action, your mother might want to talk to her neighbors, and see if they are willing to trim the encroaching plants back, and possibly install an underground root barrier to prevent accidental encroachment.

This column on issues confronting tenants and landlords is written by property manager Robert Griswold, author of “Property Management for Dummies” and co-author of “Real Estate Investing for Dummies,” and San Diego attorneys Steven R. Kellman, director of the Tenant’s Legal Center, and James McKinley, principal in a law firm representing landlords.

Copyright 2008 Inman News

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