Communication is Key: Getting your Landlord Tenant Relationship Right

North Carolina sets out responsibilities for landlords and tenants by law in N.C.G.S. Chapter 42. Additional requirements may exist at the county or city level. There are some requirements set out by law that cannot be changed; for example, a landlord may only charge a maximum late fee of $15.00 or 5% of the monthly rent (whichever is greater) and cannot request more through their lease agreement. Charges made against a security deposit must be itemized and given to the tenant in writing after the tenant vacates the premises (for more information, read the Security Deposit Act, N.C.G.S. Chapter 42-54).

Yet frequently landlords and tenants find themselves working in a gray area not explicitly set out by the law and not adequately addressed in the lease agreement. Everyone agrees that the loss of heat in wintertime constitutes an emergency repair which must be addressed as soon as possible, but what if this happened in late spring or early fall, during the last or first cold day of the year?

How about air conditioning? The loss of A/C can affect one's overall comfort and enjoyment of the property. But if the HVAC system goes out, it could be days before A/C is available again, through no fault of the landlord or tenant. Or what about a situation where the A/C isn't cooling as much as you'd like it to - perhaps during a scorcher of a day when the A/C is set to 70 but only cools to 76. Emergency? Inconvenience?

Consider the situation of a minor repair. If a burner on an oven goes out but there are three other working burners, it may not be a big deal. But if over the course of several weeks no one repairs it, it could become a sore spot between the landlord and tenant, especially if there are several other minor repairs (such as a broken doorbell or icemaker) that haven't been addressed.

I've seen the above situations happen year in and year out. My advice: communication is key. No lease agreement can cover all possible scenarios faced in a landlord-tenant relationship. By keeping communications open, these issue are more likely to be resolved.

Landlords should communicate the status of repairs to tenants when significant information becomes available. If an A/C unit dies and a compressor needs to be replaced, let the tenant know the estimated time of repair. Consider providing a rent credit (even though you may not be required to do so) to show the tenant you recognize they're being inconvenienced. Communicate through email if possible to keep a record of how you've updated the tenant on all repairs.

Tenants should notify their landlord of a repair as soon as possible, preferably in writing (or by phone call with a follow up in writing). Let the landlord know whether it is OK to have maintenance at your unit while you are away. If not, provide the landlord with times that you will be available and understand you may delay maintenance if your schedules don't sync.

For minor repairs, both parties should keep an open mind. A tenant should always notify their landlord of a minor repair even if it its not presently affecting them. A larger issue may arise in the future which could have been addressed had the issue been promptly reported. Likewise, a landlord should respond to the request by explaining how and when the issue will be addressed. If it is an issue that both parties decide to let go unaddressed, be sure this understanding is in writing.

It would be easy if the law or the lease simply pointed out who had to do what, how, and when for all circumstances. But both the law and lease recognize that life is complex and all circumstances cannot be foreseen. Keeping communications open at all times helps resolve issues not specifically addressed by law or in the lease agreement, and will increase the strength of the landlord tenant relationship.

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