Renters beware: Check the lease

Matthew Strother

June 7, 2014

Third part in an occasional series about rentals in Troup County. This part focuses on quality of rentals and quality control.

In the gap between rental prices in the local market, readers have brought up concerns of quality in some homes on the market in for less than $500 per month.

Problems with homes, including safety concerns with the buildings and neighborhoods, and what can be done to fix them was the focus of some Facebook comments when the Daily News sought input in rentals. The feedback from some claimed that their landlords kept tenants in poor conditions and didn’t address problems, or that rentals were in such poor condition that local entities should take note.

“We moved here from Newnan, and some of the houses for rent here would never even meet code in Coweta County,” commented Vontina Irvin. “There should be stricter codes.”

“If you cant afford anything over 500-600 a month, then you will probably get stuck living in a sketchy neighborhood,” commented Ashley Evans. “Which is sad.”

“Where I am now I love my landlord and my house, but I have lived in some that were not great,” commented Jennifer Cason Sprayberry. “For (instance) a tiny two-bedroom home in a not-so-fabulous neighborhood where my family dog and child were at risk getting attacked by neighbors dogs, and then our landlord doing nothing about it. My floor in my kitchen was falling through and she knew about it and said she would have (it) fixed immediately. (It) took 1 1/2 yrs to get her to fix, then ended up having more and more problems, then (she) wondered why we wanted to move when we did. I paid $550. And she was probably one of the worst landlords I have ever had. She is actually a local Realtor around here. She was hard to get in contact with as well, which made getting things fixed an even bigger pain in my rear.”

Other commenters said the homes in their price range tended to lack insulation and central heat and air-conditioning. Another commenter said she had a nice rental home, but the owner sold it out from under her family and then the rental company charged her additional fees without refunding her deposit.

One person said she encountered terrible conditions in her rental home, where broken tile cut her feet daily, faulty wiring was a fire hazard, mold and rotten wood was spread throughout, sewage water backed up and was improperly drained into the yard, and a faulty propane tank twice caused stove fires. She said local authorities did not help her with the getting the owner to fix the problems, but she was ordered in court to pay for breaking her lease when she finally left.

The concerns over quality were not only that there are homes with subpar living conditions, but for those who can’t afford high-end homes, that they have no other choice.

City and county building officials said that tenants can contact them if they feel housing code and safety violations aren’t being addressed by landlords. However, local governments can only enforce problems that are code violations, while tenants may need to take their landlord to civil court to get results over other concerns of living conditions.

Jay Anderson, county building inspector, said his office gets calls about alleged violations, but further checking may reveal that the issue isn’t a county matter, but a disagreement between landlord and tenant. Complaints about septic tanks are forwarded to the Troup County Health Department, which is responsible for that aspect.

“We get these calls all the time, and we talk to the people and ask questions and try to get to what they are really complaining about,” Anderson said. “… So they might say there is a hole in the sheet rock that separates the living and dining room … That is a civil issue between contractor and homeowner, so I have to explain to the tenant that that particular issue is between them and the landlord.”

Anderson said many times he asks tenants to check on their leases to see who is responsible for maintenance. Sometimes tenants are unaware that they’ve signed a lease where they are responsible for maintenance, which seems more common in homes with lower rental prices. In some cases, code violations that the tenant called in were actually caused by the tenant, and the lease they signed makes them responsible for fixing it.

Anderson said tenants sometimes complain about issues like paint peeling off walls, incorrect storm drainage in their yard, squeaking floors or not having heat or air-conditioning installed. Those are all issues that are not code violations and the county has no part in correcting them. Tenants have to address the issues with their landlord, and in some cases the tenants had signed a lease that said they were aware of those issues before moving in.

“Sometimes just talking to these people, we find out that it’s, ‘Well he said he would fix it when we moved in, but he hasn’t, so now I’m calling you.’ That’s a civil issue,” Anderson said.

Tenants need to be aware of what their lease states before they sign it.

“It’s very, very important to find out what the lease says,” Anderson said.

However, if the issue is a legitimate code violation, officials can enforce that with the owner.

Alton West, city of LaGrange director of community development, said city officials can conduct a courtesy inspection and if a violation is present, notify the owner that the issue needs to be addressed. If need be, the city can take the owner to municipal court to enforce fixing any violations.

West said the city has taken a more proactive approach to the state of property in the city through bi-annual “windshield surveys” of properties. Officials drive through areas and do street-level checks of houses and score them on several factors. Properties that receive scores that city officials determine they need to be addressed are flagged for follow-up surveys and possible inspections.

However issues in a vacant rental property may not apparent until someone moves in and makes a complaint about problems inside.

“The way complaints come to us, we go out and investigate and if it’s something housing related, in my department, we get permission from the property owner and can conduct an interior inspection,” West said. “… If the property is occupied, and we get a complaint that is of some severity, the roof line is sagging something like that, we make contact with the owner, notify them, and tell them the problems.”

Anderson said county inspections are complaint-driven, and officials will similarly enforce code violations for homes in unincorporated areas.

“If we get a complaint then we can go out there and look at it. We can decide if it is a violation of a building code that is putting a particular tenant at harm,” Anderson said. “If so, we have a right to address it with the property owner, or if we find something at the house that violates the code of ordinances …. we can enforce that code of ordinance with the property owner.”

Like the city, any owner found to be in violation will be given a time frame to fix the problem. If the property owner does not, then a citation follows, and then the county can take him to court. However, Anderson said most property owners are responsive when informed of issues and fix them, and the few that don’t usually will respond after they receive a citation.

West said the city has been working with property owners, including landlords and rental agencies, in recent years to improve properties. He said over the last few years, due to regular evaluations, the overall quality of properties in LaGrange has improved, but there are still some with needs to be met.

“Unfortunately, we do have a lot of property owners who do not have the financial means to address certain issues,” West said. “In that regard, we try to channel them to a non-profit organization like DASH for LaGrange to assist them, but understanding there are criteria that they have to meet” like repaying the cost through low-interest loans.