Washingtonians aren’t known for being especially handy. In a city where more than half of the population rents, most people aren’t required to unclog drains, fix leaky sinks or exterminate pests — that’s what landlords are for!
Even if you plan on renting forever, learning a few tricks of the trade can help you keep your place in working order. Bonus: Your landlord will love you. Here are some simple tips for renters to add to their figurative toolbox. (Because come on, how many renters own a real toolbox?)
Figure out what’s your responsibility and what’s not
Can you ask your maintenance staff to change your lightbulbs? Or should you really be doing that yourself?
It depends. Often the details of what each party is responsible for are included in your lease.
“We expect every tenant to keep their property in the best possible repair,” says Lisa Wise, owner of Nest DC (202-540-8038), a firm that manages small residential properties in D.C. That includes replacing lightbulbs, changing air filters in HVAC units, and watering and mowing the lawn, if applicable. It’s all in the lease.
Ask your landlord to go over who is responsible for what before you sign your lease. (This is especially important if your rental has a yard.) It’s also a good time to find out what issues the previous tenants had.
Ask about less common problems, too. Paul DiPaolo, 24, an environmental consultant, experienced a maintenance issue that’s hopefully not very common: a particularly traumatizing rodent situation.
“It was horrifying waking up and hearing my roommate, who’s a guy, screaming like a 12-year-old girl because a rat fell on him in his sleep,” DiPaolo says.
His landlord paid for exterminators, which was lucky because DiPaolo didn’t know he could ask the landlord to do so. After that, DiPaolo made a point to ask who is responsible for rodent and pest control costs before moving into new places. DiPaolo also suggests asking when the unit was last renovated and if there have ever been infestations.
DIY the little stuff
A little effort can get you a lot of good will. “We’re super appreciative when people do try and handle things on their own,” says Chad Johnson, Nest DC’s field director.
Here’s a good example: Renters with a garbage disposal may have had it stop working suddenly. That could be because the disposal was overworked, which trips a safety mechanism that cuts the power.
Before you call your handyperson, hit the reset button on the bottom of the cylindrical garbage disposal unit underneath the sink.
Another way to endear yourself to your maintenance staff: Replace your own air-conditioning filters. Ask your landlord or property manager how often you should change them. Most landlords are happy to supply you with filters, or reimburse you for them.
Use the phone
If you’re willing to attempt a fix by yourself but just aren’t sure how, call your maintenance office. They’re usually happy to walk you through the issue over the phone.
A quick call could help you get your security deposit back, says Debbie Webb of the Tower Companies, which runs the Blairs in Silver Spring (1401 Blair Mill Road, Silver Spring; 855-727-6640). “If there’s a stain on the carpet, call down right away and ask how to handle it,” Webb says. “If it’s a spot-cleaning thing, we might be able to do it really quickly and not have to charge [the tenant].”
Put some clothes on
If you want your landlord to keep responding to requests, cover up when you answer the door.
Wise says one of her tenants greeted the maintenance man completely naked. “It really traumatized my handyman.” MEREDITH L. KLEEMAN (FOR EXPRESS)
There can be quite a difference between renting a place managed by a professional company and renting one managed by a single, private landlord. The latter is likely to give you a lot of personal attention, but it will probably take him or her a little longer to fix your leaky faucet. Renters who choose to live in buildings or homes managed by professional companies with large staffs can usually expect a speedier response to their maintenance requests — even if it lacks that personal touch.
Lara Edge, 52, an independent content strategy consultant, lived in a professionally managed unit for two years. She says when her back door swelled after a heavy rainfall, her property manager sent someone out right away. “I couldn’t get it shut, couldn’t get it locked,” she says. “They fixed it ASAP.”
Orli Gross, 28, a radiographer who lives on the top floor of a converted town house in D.C., has a landlord who she says “doesn’t like to climb to the fourth floor.”
When Gross reported a clogged drain and a leak in her garbage disposal last fall, it took her landlord two weeks to respond.
Despite her landlord’s sluggish response time, she receives personalized attention, including a small monthly check to make up for noise pollution caused by neighborhood construction. “I didn’t ask for it,” she says. “It was nice because he didn’t have to.”
Paul DiPaolo has dealt with professional property management companies and a single landlord. Despite the property management’s prompt response to his calls, DiPaolo says he prefers working directly with a private landlord.
“[With] property management companies, there were multiple people to deal with,” he says. “They were dismissive, they had a set of rules that they followed and that was it. I like the personal aspect of having a landlord.” M.L.K.