QI own a small rental property. When my tenants move out, I regularly do the maintenance and cleaning myself rather than hire a contractor. Recently my tenants complained about the charges and threatened to take me to small-claims court. They tell me that they spoke to a tenant/landlord attorney who advised them that I could not charge for any work that I perform myself. I have always thought that I am actually saving my tenants money. I want to be fair and avoid going to court. What do you suggest?

ALandlords' attorney

Smith replies:

When it comes to small-claims court, anything goes. The judge or commissioner is in total control. The rules should be consistently applied, but regrettably, there is no consistency on this issue. There is a faction that subscribes to the premise that they will not allow landlords to deduct costs for doing their own work. Under this view, the landlord's work is inherently unreliable and exaggerated, not done professionally and not an out-of-pocket expense that can be awarded for damage to the rental property.

The other faction -- and the correct one -- allows landlords to do their own work as long as the costs of labor and material are reasonable. These judges realize that the landlord may be saving the resident money as long as the charges are consistent with an independent handyman's. As long as your quality and charges are consistent with the industry, I see no reason why you can't do your own work and charge that off against the deposit.

Tenants' attorney Kellman replies:

As the landlord, you are clearly entitled to deduct the true cost of repairs and cleaning from a security deposit. When you charge for your own labor for cleaning or repair, you are attempting to make additional profit from a renter as if you were a cleaning or repair professional. This is not right.

You are forcing the tenant to "hire" you to do necessary work at whatever rates you choose. Who regulates your prices or qualifications? What happens if, by your inexperience, you make the situation worse during a repair that doubles the cost? How about the repair that turns into a costly improvement? Does the tenant pay the extra cost?

A tenant, or a small-claims court judge, may feel that you are biased about your description of the repair or cleaning costs and that such costs may be inaccurate or inflated. Therefore, if claimed charges are disputed, you may have a tough time proving their validity. Many judges will not award the fees claimed by landlords for their own labor regardless of the quality of the work. It makes more sense to have necessary work done by independent professionals, even if it seems that you were doing the tenant a favor by doing the work yourself.

While Ted has spoken to many small-claims judges, I have spoken to many tenants. Clearly, tenants are more accepting of cleaning or repair charges from a reputable, licensed company than from the "handyman" landlord.

I am a tenant renting a house. I have notified my landlords of a rat/mice infestation in the garage and walls of the house. For the past three months the landlords have been setting traps in the garage and under the house.

The problem is not going away. They have told me that they are not going to hire an exterminator because it wouldn't do any good. My concern is primarily a health issue for myself, my roommate and my pet dog, which finds the traps, with mouse and rat carcasses in them. There are rat feces on tops of shelves and storage in the garage and shed areas of the house -- and who knows what is underneath it. What are my rights?

Tenants' attorney Kellman replies:

They say if you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door. Well, no matter what your landlords say, there are certainly better ways to take care of this problem than with the traps they are using.

What your landlords are doing is the most economical (meaning cheap) way to handle the situation, but not necessarily the best. Under the law, they must take care of the problem. While the law recognizes that you may be inconvenienced by home maintenance, you should not be made so uncomfortable as to affect your ability to live in your home. Clearly, the traps are not working, which means some other method must be used.

I think any reputable exterminator company will disagree with your landlords' statement that an exterminator's work will not do any good. Contact one and get some advice. Then you will know for sure how best to handle the situation.

Landlords' attorney Smith replies:

Landlords are required to satisfy minimum levels of habitability in the rental property; this involves providing you with the essential services only. Not every defect or problem can be pinned on the landlord.

In this case, you'll need to shoulder some of the responsibility because you failed to maintain the premises in a clean and sanitary condition.

To settle the matter, I recommend that the landlord pay for the extermination. You'll need to cooperate by making the rental unit ready for treatment.

This column on issues confronting tenants and landlords is written by property manager Robert Griswold and San Diego lawyers Steven R. Kellman, director of the Tenant's Legal Center, and Ted Smith, principal in a firm representing landlords. E-mail your questions to Griswold at rgriswold.inman@retodayradio.com. Questions should be brief and cannot be answered individually.

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