Fixing a hole where the rain gets in...
August 4, 2009 6:41 AM   Subscribe

Do you think my boyfriend and I are liable for water damage to our downstairs neighbors ceiling caused by our air conditioner ?

My boyfriend and I just moved into an amazing 3rd floor apartment in New Haven, CT. There are a few issues with upkeep, but overall it's in okay shape. Most of the windows are either narrow casement windows (too narrow for vertical air conditioners) or giant picture windows. The one set of windows that can accommodate an air conditioner is in our study. We were pretty psyched when we realized this as portable A/Cs are insanely expensive. So we put a portable unit in the bedroom and a window air conditioner in the study, paying little mind to the small ledge under it...

Two days go by and the people who live in the apartment downstairs invite us in to see the large water spot and trickling water coming in through their ceiling. We figure out that this small ledge under our air conditioner is actually a portion of their ceiling and not an outcropping of the house. We immediately turn off the air conditioner and they contact the landlord.

The landlord is now saying that we are not able to have ANY air conditioners. He claims that because electricity is part of our rent, we have to get permission from him to run any major electrical appliances. This is obviously not true, unless spelled out in the lease or verbally agreed to (he and my boyfriend made a verbal agreement that we would not use space heaters during winter), and I have absolutely no intention of getting rid of the portable A/C that we have in the bedroom. But he also wants us to pay for the water damage from our window air conditioner to the ceiling downstairs.

My initial reaction would be that if anything, we would be liable for a portion of it, but not the whole amount. The ledge in question is overrun by rust ("overrun" not being an exaggeration) and pretty obviously in disrepair. It's also been raining off & on for weeks and if the condensation from an air conditioner can supposedly cause this kind of damage, how could rain not cause the same (it obviously gets pretty wet considering the fact that it's rusted over)? According to state law, it seems that we would be liable for these damages if we were either "reckless" or "negligent." I personally don't believe that we were either, but I'm not exactly objective or impartial. What do you think?
posted by eunoia to Home & Garden (23 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know what you mean by "...this small ledge under our air conditioner is actually a portion of their ceiling and not an outcropping of the house," since a ceiling is obviously part of the house, and no part of a house is typically referred to as an "outcropping." A photo would help clarify what we're talking about, but I'm inclined to think it's not your problem. Any horizontal surface on the exterior of the building should be waterproof.
posted by jon1270 at 6:54 AM on August 4, 2009

Condensation from an air conditioner is a normal thing. Installing one and not making arrangements for its proper disposal would indeed be negligent. Negligent is (generally) failing to do something that causes damages that a reasonable person would have done. I, and a court, would generally agree that making arrangements for the discharge of the AC unit is reasonable.

Now, what you have to prove is what part of the water damage, if any, is caused by rain, and what part is caused by your AC. Unfortunately, I would have to presume that if the damage was caused by rain, it wouldn't have popped up when your AC unit was running. The ledge may well get wet during rain and rust up, but that doesn't mean that water actually flows on it. Next time it rains, ask the neighbors to see the area and see if water is flowing.

(Just for your own edification, consider how much water a dehumidifyer puts out running for 24 hours. All that water went down the ledge.)
posted by gjc at 6:55 AM on August 4, 2009 [5 favorites]

What gjc said. In this case, you're considered negligent. There wasn't a problem until you turned the AC on.

Any horizontal surface on the exterior of the building should be waterproof.

You can't assume that -- as one example, the surface may itself lie beneath a roof that channels water away from it.

Moreover, and more specifically, this damage is the result of something added by the tenant without the landlord's knowledge, which adds to the appearance of, if not the letter of, a claim of negligence.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 7:04 AM on August 4, 2009

You were negligent because you neglected to properly install your equipment which subsequently did damage to your landlord's property. Accept responsibility for your actions.
posted by majick at 7:06 AM on August 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

That's a relatively specific legal question, and the careful way you phrased it (facts + jurisdiction: "Do you think my boyfriend and I are liable...?") makes it difficult for an attorney to do what attorneys usually do on AskMe—offer generalized thoughts couched in disclaimers of "IANAL, entertainment-purposes-only." Lawyers who would feel comfortable commenting in other threads might keep their distance from yours, just because it's hard to deny that you offered legal advice to somebody who specifically, articulately asked for legal advice.

Just something to be aware of.
posted by cribcage at 7:18 AM on August 4, 2009

I don't know what you mean by "...this small ledge under our air conditioner is actually a portion of their ceiling and not an outcropping of the house,"

I think what the OP is implying is that her windows are recessed, and below them there is a ledge onto which the AC unit drips, which turns out to be the corner of the ceiling of the lower apartment. The OP may have noticed a puddle of water but thought it was a ledge and therefore was not all too concerned about it.

I would have to say that if the location you are describing does in fact collect water when it rains, you could make an argument for the fact that it is not just your AC that caused this problem, that there are other factors and that your purchase, installation and use of the AC is something that aggravated the situation. Claims that your landlord is making that "you are not allowed any AC!" or "this qualifies as a major appliance and therefore you needed my approval since I pay the electricity!" are outlandish. People across this great country should be allowed to buy air conditioning on a whim. Unfortunately, the bad news is that it is commonly known that AC units release water, and if you installed it in such a way as to cause damage to the unit, and did so without permission, then no one is liable except for you. Then again IANAL.
posted by phaedon at 7:19 AM on August 4, 2009

jon1270: To clarify, we didn't think the ledge was the ceiling to the floor below us. We thought that our apartment spanned the entire length of the floors below us and that the ledge was jutting off the side of the house for some reason.

gjc & Cool Papa Bell: You guys both make good points. Our assumption that the outside surface was waterproof (and perhaps put there as a runoff for water) was based solely on the fact that it had obviously encountered water and not on anything else.
posted by eunoia at 7:20 AM on August 4, 2009

You put the air conditioner in without regard to the placement of the condensate drain. I can't imagine a scenario where that isn't your fault. However, this whole "no A/C" business from the landlord is craziness. I can understand him wanting to approve the installation of the unit to make sure what happened doesn't happen again, but to say no A/C at all with no basis in the lease makes me think he's kind of off his rocker.
posted by crankylex at 7:22 AM on August 4, 2009

majick: I am not attempting to shirk responsibility. I am attempting to ascertain what my responsibility, as a tenant, actually is in a situation that I have never encountered. I consider figuring that out to also be my responsibility.
posted by eunoia at 7:30 AM on August 4, 2009

Actually, in my state, his argument about the electricity might hold water if you're going really nuts on the portable A/C. If he can show that your use is significantly above and beyond what other tenants have used, he can probably bump your rent to accommodate it. Likewise, if the power rates change, he could force a rent increase on you. By your argument, you could charge an electric car and run a machine shop in your apartment and leave him with the $1000/mo power bill.

The damage would DEFINITELY be on your dime where I live.
posted by paanta at 7:36 AM on August 4, 2009

if the landlord is paying electric, then he should have put in a clause in the lease covering high use devices, like space heaters and air conditioners. not telling him before putting one in was kind of rude--after all, you're causing his expenses to go up significantly.
posted by lester at 7:37 AM on August 4, 2009

crankylex writes "to say no A/C at all with no basis in the lease makes me think he's kind of off his rocker."

This doesn't seem totally crazy to me. A/C use could easily double the electricity bill the landlord is paying for. If the landlord's objection is substantially about the cost and you need the A/C you should offer to pay for the boost in electricity cost.
posted by Mitheral at 7:41 AM on August 4, 2009

You put the air conditioner in without regard to the placement of the condensate drain.

Many A/C units have a rubber hose that connects to the drain. You are supposed to place the hose so that the water drips away from any window ledge or side of a buiding? Does yours have one and you failed to account for the proper exit water flow? Did it have a previous hose that may have fallen offf? If so, as majick indicates: "you neglected to properly install your equipment."
posted by ericb at 7:52 AM on August 4, 2009

A/C use could easily double the electricity bill the landlord is paying for.

Exactly. My electric bill skyrockets in July and August of every year particularly due to the use of A/C.
posted by ericb at 7:55 AM on August 4, 2009

OP, I think you should pay only for the damage *you caused*, not pay to put something that was in disrepair already into perfect repair. It's not an opportunity for the landlord to get free roofing work done that he should have had done already. I agree with you that the rust is an indication that there has been long-term damage due to rainwater, not just short-term damage due to the A/C.
posted by palliser at 7:59 AM on August 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

Oh, and to make a concrete suggestion based on those thoughts: present those facts to the landlord and offer to split the bill.
posted by palliser at 8:01 AM on August 4, 2009

Mitheral, it will definitely cause the electricity to skyrocket, however this is the northeast in the summer. Expecting tenants not to install any type of air conditioner, especially without prior discussion, is unreasonable.
posted by crankylex at 8:54 AM on August 4, 2009

I used to be a landlord. IANAL Call the legal aid in your area. It will be in the phonebook - the dead tree one that the Library will have, if you don't. The rental agreement doesn't say you can't have an air conditioner, so you probably can. As far as the damage, it's not straightforward. Maybe posting pics of this ledge would help. Try sitting down w/ landlord and neighbors, with the stated intention of finding an acceptable solution.
posted by theora55 at 9:38 AM on August 4, 2009

Condensation? We have a small window unit and it produces over 12 litres of water in two days.

You really should include a pic. I'm having a hard time seeing how your ledge is a section of their ceiling and you're not responsible for this?

Unless you meant your ledge is a part of their roof - which then leaks when you run an A/C onto it. A roof isn't supposed to leak. But then depending on how rusted out it was, should that have indicated running water onto something in that condition wasn't the best idea? Where was it logical to think this water was going to drain?

So really, without a pic who could even guess?
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 10:09 AM on August 4, 2009

Unless this ledge is inside, if it allows water inside, it probably doesn't adhere to building codes. As noted without a picture this is difficult for us to judge. Overrun with rust, as with this recent AskMe, indicates a weakened roof that will soon fail (and technically already has). Any kind of exterior roof should both prevent water from getting in and provide for its drainage.

The trouble with a lawyer here is that it could well cost you just as much to defend yourself as it would to pay up. You may just want to pencil in an appointment with small claims court, acting pro se. In that instance you will definitely want photographs of the roof and your air conditioner, in particular the condensation from it, and photos of rainfall accumulation might be in order as well.

Going back to my own tenant days, there was an issue with my tub overflow. It was no longer properly connected, so when it overflowed, the water ended up inside the wall and in the ceiling downstairs. They tried to blame me, and I said that it seemed to me that the tub was not working properly, and that it was their responsibility to have a professional fix it, or I would have to talk to the city about it. Surprise! They had a plumber out within a couple of days. He had no fun doing the repair by going in behind the radiator in the next room, but I had no more complaints about the leak.
posted by dhartung at 11:12 AM on August 4, 2009

YOUR LANDLORD IS OUT OF LINE. And maybe just freaking out because he didn't cover his bases. I hope he'll get reasonable once he calms down. At most, you are only responsible for a fraction of the repair costs.

#1 - Without a specific addendum speaking to use of ac's and permission, it is fine for you to have one. I bet there was a clause in your lease regarding water-filled furniture (i.e. water beds) right? if your landlord was paying the electric, and he thought thru the portable heaters in the winter, but forgot the ac's in the summer... his bad.

#2 - ANYTHING exterior on a property should be waterproof. Especially if it forms the roof/ceiling of an interior space. Again, a picture might help, but it sounds like your landlord is trying to make you culpable for repairs he should have performed long ago to insure the integrity of the ceiling in the apartment below yours.

Now. I would take a close close look at that ceiling in your neighbors. Is it yellowed? Does it look uneven and previously patched? Take pictures just in case you end up in small claims court or something. I bet bet bet you will see tell-tale signs of previous leaks and repairs in that spot if you look carefully.

There is every possibility this is an on-going leak. Perhaps before your ac it was just a slight thing during rain storms? Maybe the tenants didn't even notice the leak prior to your ac. How long has the below-tenant lived in that unit, anyway?

YOU RAN YOUR AC FOR 2 DAYS. I think this ledge should have been able to withstand 2 days of rain, yes? So why is the run-off water from your ac any different than a solid continuous rain?

Maybe your landlord just freaked out and it was easiest to blame you. Be nice and reasonable. See where that gets you. He may calm down and change his tune.

If he wants you to pay for more than a fraction of the repair, consider moving. Ditto on the electricity use issue. If he is not willing to be reasonable with you, than this is not someplace you want to live.

I hope cool heads prevail and it all works out.
posted by jbenben at 11:54 AM on August 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Upon preview and regarding the lease and any clauses regarding electricity.... I was not meaning to sound snarky when I wrote, "...but forgot the ac's in the summer... his bad."

As a landlord, I would approach the tenant nicely and acknowledge that I forgot to include use of ac's or other portable appliances in their lease. I might even say something like, "I have X amount in electrical monies budgeted for your unit. Of course this is my fault, but might you work with me and agree to some slight charge in the summers if the power bill exceeds X amount?

Then I would expect the tenant to say "No."

Sometimes, an owner has to suck it up and pay unplanned expenses associated with a property. An owner who expects it is their renters' responsibility to cover or directly mitigate the majority of the expenses associated with ownership is operating under a very poor business model. Building ownership is definitely about long-term investment and reward.
posted by jbenben at 12:13 PM on August 4, 2009

jbenben writes "An owner who expects it is their renters' responsibility to cover or directly mitigate the majority of the expenses associated with ownership is operating under a very poor business model."

Actually you'll find the vast majority of professional landlords expect not only that all their costs will be covered; including taxes, HOA/condo fees, sewage/water/garbage if separate, a percentage for repairs, etc.; but that there will be a kick to them at least equal to putting that capital in a high interest savings account. Renting out for a while and then making money on the appreciation of the property is a road to ruin dependent on a ponzi scheme writ large. The real estate bubble implosion in the states is proof of that in spades. I know I expect my rental property to make money.

crankylex writes "Mitheral, it will definitely cause the electricity to skyrocket, however this is the northeast in the summer. Expecting tenants not to install any type of air conditioner, especially without prior discussion, is unreasonable."

Well I can't speak to the unreasonableness; it's not impossible to live without A/C well into the 100sF but YMMV pretty wildly. It's been approaching 40 here for a couple weeks and lots of people don't have A/C. I'll admit it would be sloppy to not explicitly exclude A/Cs or otherwise cover the electrical usage of such. I will say it seems unreasonable to me to expect the landlord to pony up the difference, especially considering the agreement on space heaters shows they were concerned about usage. It's common around here for utilities to be split amongest tenants of converted properties which tends to keep abuses like this in check (it's your neighbour taking up the slack not some evil landlord) and if not it's not the landlord's problem.

Close reading of the lease is going to be in order to determine the legality of the landlord's demand. Besides the obvious many leases prohibit placing things in windows and he may be able to back door the ban in this manner.
posted by Mitheral at 2:09 PM on August 4, 2009

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