The roof is leaking, and the property manager couldn't care less. Help?
October 23, 2014 2:56 PM   Subscribe

We rent a second-floor apartment in a two-story house. There is apparently a leak in the roof, and when there's a lot of rain (like right now, it's been pouring since last night!) water drips through our living room ceiling. It's not a HUGE leak, but it's right in the middle of the room, and the water is coming in right next to a light fixture. The property manager has been notified twice -- once a few months ago, and once today. He is ignoring us. Many many more details after the cut...

We don't know our landlord. He's in the State Department, and apparently travels a lot, so he leaves the house entirely in the care of the property management company. However, the property manager, who is also the owner of the company, is utterly incompetent, and the last few times we've dealt with him, he's been obviously drunk. (For example: we called him when the dryer in the basement died, and had a whole long conversation with him about when he was going to come over and look at it. The next morning, he called to ask when he could come look at it, and had no memory at all of the previous nights' conversation. He was also slurring his words and all. We've also gotten some weird emails from him in the past that were written very late at night, and read like he was drunk when he wrote them.)

He has told us in the past to text him, because he rarely checks his email. So, fine, I'd rather have the evidence that we contacted him that the saved texts provide. We've texted him photos of the leak -- the discolored patches on the ceiling, the water dripping off the side of the light fixture cover, etc. He hasn't responded to the texts. My husband also emailed him the photos: no response. We're not really inclined to call him because, well, if he's drunk he won't remember that we called. He has, in the past, lost rent checks (both ours and our downstairs neighbors) and notes that we send him. It's a mess.

I am worried to death that the ceiling is going to fall in and kill our guinea pigs (we don't have another large room to move their cage to, unfortunately) or that the water dripping next to the light fixture is going to cause a fire. I'm also worried about mold. I know MeFi is not my lawyer, but does anyone have any suggestions on what we can do to force the property manager to respond? Should we try to track down the landlord? Call a roof repair place ourselves and take the cost out of the rent?

And just for added details: we're very very poor, and our tenancy is month-to-month, I assume, because the property manager never had us renew our lease when it ran out, oh, six years or so ago. So he could decide to boot us out if he wants to. (I know, that's not really logical, but... see above re: his drunkenness and occasional irrational outbursts.) We're in Massachusetts.
posted by sarcasticah to Home & Garden (30 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Can't you just terminate your tenancy and leave?
posted by Slinga at 3:16 PM on October 23, 2014

Is there a tenants organization in your city or county? I'd start there. They may be able to help you track down the owner or compel the manager to do something. Maybe they can look up county property records and find the owner that way? The owner must still be paying taxes on the property.

I'd also start calling the manager every day. Email and text as well - every day. This is a major issue, not some cosmetic complaint.
posted by quince at 3:21 PM on October 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Oh, we would LOVE to. But we haven't been able to find another place we can afford. (This place is cheap. Cheap and crappy.) We've been looking for months, but not having any luck at all. We need to know what to do in the meantime.
posted by sarcasticah at 3:21 PM on October 23, 2014

Page 10 of this PDF from the state clearly states you have the right to a safe and habitable place. Is there a renter's rights organization you can call?
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 3:23 PM on October 23, 2014

We're not really inclined to call him because, well, if he's drunk he won't remember that we called.
It is an emergency, call him. He may not be drunk, or if he is, he may still remember. Keep calling him until he is sober. Do you have any other phone numbers for the company? Do you have the owner's contact info? He'd probably like to know that his property manager isn't responding to an emergency.

FWIW, I've had this happen and the ceiling did not cave in. Can you put the cage under a table so the guinea pigs are protected?

Call a roof repair place ourselves and take the cost out of the rent?
It is usually not legal to do this without your landlord's okay or taking it to housing court. Check with your local tenants' union.

Does your city or county have a housing inspector? They'd be interested in this situation...
posted by soelo at 3:25 PM on October 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Are you physically able to go buy a huge tarp (or 2) and put it over the roof? It'll need be secured.

Next, call a roofer, and prepare to deduct the cost from your rent:
posted by at at 3:25 PM on October 23, 2014

You can repair it yourself and deduct the rent, but I'd get a referral from the Bar Association for someone to help you.
posted by potsmokinghippieoverlord at 3:26 PM on October 23, 2014

Response by poster: I'm trying to hunt down the landlord's info now. The property manager owns the management company, the only contact info is his number and email.
posted by sarcasticah at 3:29 PM on October 23, 2014

This happened to me, years ago, in an old row house in Philly. It was leaking for a few days while I tried to call. And then the ceiling *did* fall down, in a single giant sodden slab that would have killed anyone under it.
One minute it was leaking but intact, the next minute the entire ceiling was on the floor.
I would recommend that if you think the ceiling looks like it could come down, that you be contacting the renter's rights organization AFTER or WHILE you get the roof taken care of -- not before, because you might not have time before it collapses.
In my case, the landlord clearly didn't have the money even to fix it after the ceiling came down and we could see into the rafters. At that point I informed him that I was calling someone and taking it out of my rent and he agreed.
I don't know if this is legal, but to me it was worth trying. Tell him if anything happens to you you'll sue. I would try to move the animals into the part of the room that looks safest, or get a small temporary cage and bring them in wtih you.
posted by third rail at 3:30 PM on October 23, 2014

Best answer: Call the Building Department. File a complaint.

An inspector will come out. Letters will be sent. Things will get fixed.

This is illegal because now you're talking about structural damage at a commercial property (residential rental.)

Find out who the owner of record is (you may have to go in person to find this out.)

When you find out. Notify the owner the property manager is a drunk.

End of story.
posted by jbenben at 3:49 PM on October 23, 2014 [9 favorites]

Response by poster: I'm going to call the local health department person at City Hall tomorrow morning. From looking at their site, they seem to be the ones to contact first.
posted by sarcasticah at 4:43 PM on October 23, 2014

Building Department. Not health department, BUILDING DEPARTMENT.

Yo. It is possible the dwelling is not even legally registered as a residential rental. The Building Department certifies this. YOU WILL GET QUICKER SERVICE AND HEAVIER AUTHORITY THROUGHT THE BUIKDING DEPARTMENT.

Not the Health Department. Building Department.

(Health Dept, too. But the Building Department carries the bigger stick:))
posted by jbenben at 4:56 PM on October 23, 2014

I know you said you can't move the guinea pigs, but you are going to have to move them so they can repair the ceiling, assuming you get the landlord to do the work, so maybe now is the time to figure something out?
posted by Rock Steady at 4:57 PM on October 23, 2014

Response by poster: Yep, we'll figure that out tonight. I'm at work right now, for another 45 minutes.
posted by sarcasticah at 5:15 PM on October 23, 2014

Response by poster: There isn't a building department listed for my city. There's Inspection Services? I would hope that, if I emailed the wrong department (I sent an email to the health department person, since their section on the city's website has all the information on tenants' rights and landlord responsibilities; that's why I chose to contact them) that they'll put me in touch with the right person.

It's a small city.
posted by sarcasticah at 5:20 PM on October 23, 2014

Call City Hall in the morning. Phone works much better than email in dealing with municipal bureaucracy..
posted by Rock Steady at 6:17 PM on October 23, 2014 [2 favorites]

Check your memail.
posted by SillyShepherd at 6:49 PM on October 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

In the meantime, I would check how soft the plaster is at the leak site. If it's spongy, there's probably a lot of water up above waiting to come down. You can poke a hole with a screwdriver, and have a bucket ready below. The longer you leave all that water up there,mother more likely you are to get mold. A competent repair will involve both the roof and possibly a larger portion of the ceiling than you're prepared for.
posted by SobaFett at 8:04 PM on October 23, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: The plaster isn't soft, apparently -- I noticed another water stain on the ceiling when I got home, and my husband poked at it to see how wet it felt (it didn't) and is it was soft (it wasn't). Of course, still no reply from the property manager, despite several emails, two voicemail messages, and countless texts. Good thing he's so responsive in an emergency. /sarcasm
posted by sarcasticah at 10:25 PM on October 23, 2014

Make City Hall put you in touch with the most effective avenues for complaints. This is NOT a landlord/tenant dispute and you should not act like it is.

A dispute takes two or more people with different viewpoints.

This is a legal issue.

- The House's Certificate of Occupancy is in jeopardy.

As in....

- The house might not even be registered as a rental. Being registered as a rental subjects the owner and management to extra inspections and responsibilities regular residential homes are not subject to under normal circumstances.

The property manager acts like there is no authority above him. I find that very curious.

If you don't already have renters insurance (that covers leaks and flooding) get it TOMORROW. I wouldn't mention the leak. You know of no such thing thus far. They won't ask, at any rate, so do not volunteer.

Renters insurance is $15 to $30 per month, and so so worth it. There will be a deductible. Heaven forbid you ever need to make a claim, you will sue your landlord (successfully!!) in small claims for the deductible. Easy Peasy.

Make sure you document the damage (pictures) thus far, and start keeping a log and paper trail of phone calls/texts/written and formal complaints.

I hope this all works out. Good luck.
posted by jbenben at 11:54 PM on October 23, 2014

We don't know our landlord. He's in the State Department, and apparently travels a lot, so he leaves the house entirely in the care of the property management company.

The place i live right now has an out of town landlord that's really annoying to reach. You can basically only email her, and she lives basically the entire state away. The on site manager is a complete dunce who has drunkenly accosted me and sounds similar.

I had a leak like this. I got the actual landlord/owners number from the lease and just demon dialed it. I blew up every method of non-snail-mail communication i could for the owner saying "hey, there's water coming in, it's ruining my ceiling, i have a bowl under it, this is stupid and illegal and you need to fix it ASAP".

I took lots of pictures, and within like a day there was a roofing truck here and the roof was repaired. The actual plaster and interior damage didn't get dealt with for like a month(and i started to get worried about that), but now ugly non-matching paint is my worst problem and everything is fine.

You should call city hall, and follow up with the building department like was mentioned above. But i'd make a concurrent effort to contact the actual owner. It's quite possible they're not an idiot, and their reaction would be "WHAT? ok, yea, let me get off the phone and call someone who can fix that right now". They probably don't want their building destroyed.

I mean, unless they're a total absentee slumlord, and i've dealt with that too, but it's worth a try. Shitty management doesn't always = shitty owner.
posted by emptythought at 4:05 AM on October 24, 2014

The building inspection folks in my town are the Code Compliance department, but just call City Hall and ask them to direct you to the right person. I went through this in an old apartment building on behalf of my elderly neighbor down the hall. When I reported that there were new cracks and buckling they dispatched someone immediately.

I would emphasize that this has been an ongoing problem and you think there is imminent danger of the ceiling collapsing.
posted by Room 641-A at 7:01 AM on October 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

(Rather than a tenant/landlord issue.)
posted by Room 641-A at 7:02 AM on October 24, 2014

Response by poster: Glory be, he responded to the texts this morning! And is coming by later today. We're still going to try to get the landlord's info, though.

(It isn't an illegal apartment, by the way. That's not even remotely an issue.)
posted by sarcasticah at 7:56 AM on October 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: (Oh, and we got renter's insurance yesterday! Double-checking that it covers water damage now.)
posted by sarcasticah at 7:57 AM on October 24, 2014 [1 favorite]

It's great that the manager is coming over. Now you need to find out exactly what steps he is required to take once he sees the damage and how quickly he must act. In California there are a few violations that automatically make a unit legally uninhabitable so its possible you may even be eligible for a hotel stipend if you need to leave. It's possible that you may not be responsible for rent if certain deadlines are not met.

I would call your local tenant's rights group and find out as much as you can. You can also find this information online in your state's civil code and city's municipal code. (I love reading the Ca. CC but I'm kind of weird.) If your state has a Consumer Affairs division they can probably help, too.

Nothing motivates a sketchy or irresponsible landlord/management company more than a tenant who knows their rights! Even if the manager is an idiot the property management company knows exactly what they are required to do. If you are not satisfied by the manager's response try going up the chain at the property management company; they are acting as the owner's agent and should want to make sure that they are not liable to the owner for any reason. Keep us updated!
posted by Room 641-A at 9:30 AM on October 24, 2014

Response by poster: Well, he WAS coming over, but of course never showed, and sent a vague text about seeing us on Monday. When my husband will be at work. I'm not letting this guy into the apartment when I'm there alone. And no explanation, no offer to come tomorrow or Sunday... I am beyond pissed off.

The good news is, I heard back from the Senior Health Inspector at City Hall, and she's offered to come do an inspection, which would result in an Order to Correct being sent to the owner. (Her words; I'm not certain if she means they'd contact the actual landlord.) I'm thinking we'll be taking her up on that, since now the property manager isn't answering texts or calls again.
posted by sarcasticah at 2:50 PM on October 24, 2014 [2 favorites]

In light of your update, I think you should try to meet with the Inspector ASAP and also start figuring out your rights in this situation. If the Inspector issues the order(s) they will have deadlines for completion, but also for any interim steps like inspections that might need to happen. Delays without cause usually start racking up daily fines so I suspect they will comply, but you should know exactly what you should be doing if they drop the ball at any stage.

I would also put together an action plan for temporary alternative housing because if at any point in the inspection or the repair process the unit is found to be legally uninhabitable* you might be required to leave the apartment quickly; you should know if and how much your landlord is responsible for paying during this, what would make it legal for you to break your lease, and if you might be eligible for relocation costs. Even if you don't have to leave you may be eligible for other things like reduced rent. Knowledge is power!

I am worried to death that the ceiling is going to fall in and kill our guinea pigs

Can you move the cage under a large table for the time being?

One minute it was leaking but intact, the next minute the entire ceiling was on the floor.

I hate to say this, but I've also had this experience (while the Code Compliance guy was looking for a parking space!) so I'd put together a little bug-out kit with essentials just in case.

*That's the language in California law but might be different where you are.
posted by Room 641-A at 10:07 AM on October 26, 2014

Response by poster: Marking this resolved because, wonder of wonders, the property manager actually showed up to look at the leak this morning! And is sending a roofer by on Friday!! I guess telling him that we were getting the city involved lit a fire under his ass.

For future reference, if anybody else is having this issue, getting in touch with the city health inspector was the right call -- my city's small enough that it doesn't have a building department, and the Inspection Services department seems to handle more business-type stuff. The health inspector was very helpful, and very willing to come look at the leak and send an Order to Comply to the landlord.
posted by sarcasticah at 4:19 PM on October 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

posted by Room 641-A at 4:58 PM on October 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

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