Advice for landlords: Rights and Responsibilities when Sewer and Drain Pipes Fail in Rental Properties
The issue of who bears the cost of repairing broken sewer pipes or fixing blocked drains in a rental property is an age-old bone of contention. There’s no doubt some tenants are careless about what they dispose of in toilets and sinks, but even when tenants are doing all the right things, clogged sewer pipes and breaks for various reasons and apportioning responsibility for costs can be highly problematic.
This article originally appeared as part of a larger investigation into landlords’ rights and responsibilities for sewer and drain maintenance and repairs in rental properties. That article also provided tips and strategies to help landlords reduce potential costs in these areas. To read the full article, please click here.
Responsibilities of Landlords and Tenants
Landlords need to make sure their property is safe and suitable for tenants, but tenants also have a responsibility to care for a property and keep it functioning the way it was when they moved in. In addition, landlords need to be very clear about how they want their property to be maintained, and what the consequences of ignoring their requests might be.
When it comes to clearing blockages in hidden (i.e. underground) pipes, attributing fault (and deciding who should pay the bill) can be difficult. If it’s a relatively simple thing, such as a major clump of hair that has blocked a drain, the responsibility might lie with the tenant, but even then – if the landlord does not have solid evidence, it could be argued the hair had been accumulating in the drain for years prior to the start of the tenancy. One could also argue that given the landlord did not have a hair trap on the drain, they had not taken due care to maintain the pipes and drains of their property in the first place.
Is the Drain being Maintained or Repaired?
Essentially, things become more complicated when it’s unclear whether a pipe problem at a property falls under the classification of ‘maintenance’ or ‘repair.’ In a very general sense, maintenance refers to fixing things on the property that are seen as daily wear and tear and aren’t classed as urgent (such as repairing a fence that has been slowly deteriorating for years or having a roof repainted). These are usually paid for by the landlord.
Emergency (or other) repairs typically refer to something that’s been broken or damaged unexpectedly and needs to be fixed promptly, such as a cracked or broken pipe that needs to be relined. It is here that a tenant may find themselves footing the bill – but only if it can be proven that their actions brought that emergency pipe repair cost about in the first place.
Establishing the real cause of a Broken or Clogged Sewer Pipes
If a dispute arises, it will all come down to who it is that can best meet the burden of proof. A landlord does need to fix a blocked drain urgently – particularly clogged sewer pipes– because to do otherwise means they are not fulfilling their obligation to provide safe and liveable waste pipes at the property for their tenant.
Once the drain is fixed, the bill needs to be paid and if the tenant disputes that responsibility for the blockage is theirs, it is usually the landlord who will pay the account. They must then consider whether they want to try to recoup the funds from the tenant or from their bond. If they do (and the tenant continues to deny responsibility) then the onus will be on the landlord to prove that the sewer pipe blockage was caused directly by the tenant’s careless actions (i.e. placing inappropriate items down the toilet).
The bond is the tenant’s money therefore in order for the landlord to have a right to take some of that money the onus is on him/her to prove they have a valid claim to it. If the two parties have tried their best to resolve the dispute on their own to no avail they can proceed to formal mediation. If there is still no agreement the matter can be put before a civil administrative tribunal (check your state or territory in Australia) or refer to the Tenancy Tribunal (New Zealand).
Here, whatever evidence each party can present will be considered, but remember that it is the landlord who must prove they have a right to take some of the tenant’s money (bond) to cover the cost of fixing the blocked drain or broken pipes.
Proving Fault in Disputes over Blocked Pipes
Therefore, blocked drains (which are almost always tucked secretly away behind walls, under floors or buried deep in the ground) present such difficulties. Most landlords are significantly under-prepared for proving in court that broken or clogged sewer pipes occurred as a result of a tenant’s lack of care.
- Were there any written instructions provided to the tenant by the landlord about what NOT to place in the pipes?
- Can it be conclusively proven that something the tenant disposed of in the pipe was what caused all the damage?
- Is there evidence that the items causing the blockage weren’t there PRIOR TO the tenancy period beginning?
- And how well have the pipes been maintained and repaired prior to and throughout the tenancy?
These and other factors will be taken into account by decision-makers trying to establish where responsibility for costs lies. Landlords who make efforts to ensure they are able to meet that burden of proof are in a much better position when it comes to recouping costs for clearing and fixing blocked drains that occur as a result of tenant misuse in rental properties.
You can read our companion articles on ways landlords can better prepare themselves for disputes over broken and blocked pipe repair costs on their properties and how to educate tenants about what CANNOT be placed in drains here.
NOTE: The above advice is general in nature and professional legal advice should be sought if further clarification is needed.