QI have been living in the same apartment since 1981. During that time the four-unit building, which dates to the 1930s or 1940s, has had four owners.

I have a severe problem with snoring, and I need to buy a special machine for sleep apnea as prescribed by my doctor. This machine requires a grounded electrical outlet, of which there are none in my apartment. My microwave oven and my computer also require grounded outlets, but I have been using adapters for them.

The refrigerator was replaced several years ago and the then-owner merely snipped off the grounding part of its plug and plugged it into an ungrounded outlet.

Are there any building code requirements that would require the owner to change all or some of the outlets so that they are grounded? Does my medical need hold any weight in asking for a grounded outlet, at least in my bedroom?

ATenants' attorney

Kellman replies:

The dwelling must be maintained in a safe and habitable condition. The code specifically provides that the electrical system must conform "with applicable law at the time of installation, maintained in good working order."

In your case, this is an older home and probably built well before grounded circuits were required. Therefore, absent a significant upgrade of the home or unless there is a dangerous condition created by the use of the electrical system, the landlord may not be required to modify any wiring or add grounded plugs throughout the house.

As to the use of the medical device, however, the rules change a bit. Under fair housing and discrimination laws, a landlord must make reasonable accommodations for a person based on a disability. This means only that the landlord may be required to allow permission for certain alterations or modifications to accommodate the disability.

Unfortunately, the law requires the tenant to pay the costs of those changes to the home. Under some situations, the tenant must even restore the unit back to the way it was before the modification upon moving out.

In your case, the landlord would probably have to allow the alteration of at least one circuit to add a grounding wire for the medical device. Of course, when the alteration or modification is an improvement, as in your case, the landlord should reimburse the tenant for those costs if it will remain after the tenant leaves.

Landlords' attorney Smith replies:

From the landlord's point of view, there is no requirement for additional grounding of outlets as long as the outlets were installed to code and function properly. These two requirements being met, the landlord has complied with the state and local rental habitability laws.

My view is that the landlord does not have to agree to your special requirements unless your sleep disorder qualifies as a disability defined by the Americans With Disabilities Act. Although it stretches it a bit, it is conceivable that this could be the case.

Your recent column concerning lodgers and room rentals prompts me to ask you about the rental of in-law houses or guest cottages. The reality is that many people rent out such units. Although they are often much more desirable than apartments, they are not usually zoned or completely built to code as rentals. Are there considerations regarding the legal, tax, insurance and rental agreement aspects when renting out these units? Landlords' attorney Smith replies:

Yes. A real estate owner may lawfully rent out in-law or guest-house units as long as the landlord/tenant relationship does not violate zoning laws with respect to density regulations. Of course, if the addition was bootlegged -- that is, not built to code -- then its operation is illegal and rental expenses cannot legally be deducted for tax purposes. Collection of rent is also at risk.

Still, to the extent that it is a bona fide landlord/tenant relationship and rental income is derived from the guest house, the landlord will be legally obligated to declare such as income for tax purposes. Rental appreciation and other deductions can be made as though it was a regular apartment building.

Landlord-tenant rules apply in the event of an eviction. It would not be legal to force the tenant out for nonpayment of rent without going through this legal process. Before renting guest houses or in-law units, carefully investigate whether it is legal to do so and what is in your best investment interests.

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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