A landlord's responsibility to his tenants is to provide a safe, functional living space. Before a tenant moves in, it's the landlord's obligation to make sure that the property is up to local and federal housing code. City and county housing authorities establish strict minimum standards for electricity, plumbing, paint (lead-free), lighting, ventilation and structural integrity. Many cities also require safety measures like dead bolts on all exterior doors, smoke alarms and fire extinguishers in each unit.
Once the tenant moves in, it's the landlord's responsibility to repair anything that breaks on the property, from a burned-out light bulb in the stairwell down to leaky faucets. A landlord is expected to respond to a repair request within 24 hours and fix it within a reasonable time frame [source: Nolo]. The severity of the problem usually dictates how quickly it gets fixed.
If a landlord fails to address a known problem in a timely fashion, he could get into big trouble. The worst-case scenario is that a tenant or his guest is seriously injured by an unresolved issue with the property, like a broken rail on a staircase or a missing floorboard. If the tenant can prove that the landlord knew about the damage and neglected to act with reasonable timeliness to fix it, he can sue and he'll win. This is why landlords have to buy liability insurance.
Not all landlord-tenant arguments end in a lawsuit. But if a tenant gets frustrated with how long it takes his landlord to fix the dishwasher, he has several options. In most states in the United States, he can legally withhold his rent until the repair is made. He may also have the right to arrange the repairs himself and subtract the cost from his next rent check. In some states, if things get really bad, the tenant can treat the failure to respond as a breach of contract and move out in the middle of the lease.
A landlord can protect himself by documenting exactly when he receives all notifications of a problem with the property and when he took action to resolve it. Even if the landlord can't fix the problem right away, it's his responsibility to let the tenant know the circumstances that are causing the delay and when it might be resolved. A good landlord will encourage his tenants to report all known problems immediately to avoid potential liability for injuries.
It's also the landlord's responsibility to keep his tenants safe from crime. All stairways and common areas need to be well-lighted. Main doors and gates need to remain locked at all times. If there's an intercom system for buzzing in guests, it needs to be in working order. Exterior doors should have deadbolts and windows should have locks, particularly those that are accessible by an external fire escape.
A landlord also has to take reasonable measures to make sure that his tenants aren't criminals. If a landlord knows that some of his tenants are dealing drugs from their apartments, for example, and doesn't report them to the police, the landlord might be held accountable for any neighborhood crimes that can be linked to the drug-dealing operation.
In addition to their many responsibilities, landlords have some important rights under the law. We'll take a look at them in the next section.