What Renters Should Know About Dealing with Accidental Apartment Damage

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Credit: Erin Derby

Nearly every renter has been there: You encounter an accidental hole left behind by your artwork, an unwanted drain situation in the bathroom, or an unintended dent in the fridge. When you rent your home, these issues come up often, but when is it OK to repair the damage yourself and when should you call in the landlord or a professional? 

I spoke to several landlords and real estate experts to find out when to DIY — and when not to. 

First, document any pre-existing damage.

Some landlords will perform a move-in inspection with tenants to identify the initial condition of their apartment. This step is very important, says Las Vegas-based property manager and Realtor Melissa Zimbelman, as it’s tough to prove later that something was already damaged at move-in without some kind of documentation. 

If the landlord doesn’t provide an inspection form, you might try using this simple online version — and be sure to keep a copy. Zimbelman recommends that tenants fill out the form and note any bumps and bruises on walls, flooring, baseboards, and appliances. “Taking date-stamped photos at move-in and sharing them with the landlord by email is a good way to ensure that everyone is on the same page,” she says. 

Consider whether it’s a replacement or a repair.

Typically, it’s the property owner’s responsibility to maintain and repair essential apartment features, says New York City-based real estate broker Adjina Dekidjiev of Coldwell Banker Warburg, but tenants should review their lease to be sure. “The warranty of habitability is a clause in most leases that ensures apartments must be habitable and must have working appliances in the kitchen and bath as well as functioning outlets and plumbing,” she adds. These items should all be handled by the property owner if they’re not working. 

Stacy Brown, director of technical training at Real Property Management, agrees. “Except in some instances, such as battery and light bulb replacement, maintenance and repairs are the physical and financial responsibility of the landlord,” she says. “Yes, if the renter throws a baseball through a window, they are responsible, but even then, the landlord should be notified and handle the repair.” 

Dekidjiev says replacing a broken lock on a door, swapping out the shower head, or putting in a new toilet seat could be OK as long as no damage is done, but she recommends erring on the side of caution: “Put everything in writing and inform the owner of any repairs made to avoid any misunderstandings down the line and deductions from your security deposit.” 

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Know when to call the experts.

Zimbelman advises tenants to go ahead and replace burned-out light bulbs or batteries yourself, as some landlords or property managers charge high fees for having to replace these “maintenance” items for you. 

But when it comes to almost anything else, she says it’s much safer to have a licensed and insured professional handle the repairs. “Tenants should not make repairs to plumbing or electrical systems,” Zimbelman says. “If a repair is attempted and is not done correctly, fire or flood damage is likely, and isn’t worth the risk. I would rather the tenant just make me aware of the issue, and I will send my contractor out to make the repair and charge the tenant for the cost, when appropriate.”

Paint touch-ups are another area she often sees tenants attempt to repair unsuccessfully. “We have walked into homes that looked like they had cheetah spots all over when tenants used old or incorrect paint to try and touch-up,” she says. “Our only option at that point was to repaint entire walls or rooms to get the house back to an acceptable condition. It would have been less expensive for the tenant not to have done anything in that situation.” 

Lastly, unintentional damage is simply par for the course, says Paul Kiledjian, chief operating officer at RentalHouse Property Management, adding that “experienced landlords and property managers know this and can provide guidance to tenants to save them time and money on repairs.”