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Building codes, state laws back living standards

The toilet just flooded, the heat doesn't work, the screen door has been hanging on its hinges since move-in day: For which of these problems is a tenant allowed to take action against his landlord?

According to Charlottesville building code, a landlord is required to fix things that break - but within reason.

If serious things remain unfixed, the tenant may take action, and in extreme cases, even sue.

That means the toilet and the heat must be seen to, but the screen door may continue to hang on its hinges. Screen doors are neither required for security or health reasons. By code, however, window screens must be in place between the months of April and September.

According to Grover Smiley, Charlottesville fire marshall and building official, landlords are required to have locks on all windows and doors, to provide smoke detectors within individual apartments - but not in hallways - to have plumbing that works and to have a heating system that maintains a minimum temperature of 65 degrees.

"The thing that people have to remember is that building code is a minimal standard and it may not be the ideal. We can only require people to comply with the minimum standard," Smiley said.

If the minimum standard is not met, however, a tenant can notify his landlord by letter, give him a reasonable time to respond and put his next month's rent into escrow, or court legal fees.

"When there are conditions that materially affect health and safety, the Virginia Residential Landlord & Tenant Act permits the tenant, after giving written notice and reasonable passage of time - usually a month - [to] pay the rent to the court until the court hears the matter," Student Legal Services Director Lester Wilson said.

Conditions that materially affect health and safety include inadequate heat, fire code violations and sanitation problems.

Wilson said a student should not take such action before consulting a legal service provider.

"You don't just take your check and bring it down to the clerk," he said.

The biggest culprits for student complaints often are the smaller "mom and pop" operations who own only a few properties, he added.

"We get fewer complaints from larger landlords. They've been doing it for a lot longer and they have crews to go out and fix things," Wilson said. "The small mom and pop landlords are more likely not to be governed by the Landlord & Tenant Act but all the larger landlords are governed by it."

If an individual owns less than four housing units the Virginia Residential Landlord & Tenant Act does not apply to his property or the residents who live there.

The Virginia Residential Landlord & Tenant Act also applies to getting one's security deposit returned - another major source of contention between landlords and tenants.

The Virginia Residential Landlord & Tenant Act stipulates that landlords return the security deposit less expenses incurred for fixing damaged items or cleaning once the tenants have moved out, Wilson said.

"A lot of times the student will say the damage existed before they came," he said.

To ensure this problem does not occur, he added that it is important that students make a list of defects before and after moving in or to take pictures. The better landlords, he said, take videos themselves before students move into their property.

But sometimes the student will make a list of the defects and not keep a copy of it and the landlord will say he never got it, he added.

"The most avoidable dispute and the most common dispute is the landlord said the student caused deterioration of the premises and the student says, 'I didn't,'" said Commerce School Prof. John Wheeler.

To avoid this problem, Wheeler also advises student tenants to make a video at move-in and a video at move-out to show they did not cause the deterioration.

Although Wilson said neither he nor the University endorsed specific landlords, some landlords are "more difficult than others."

The larger landlords in the Charlottesville area include CBS, Wade, Management Services Corporation, Old Salem, Woodard and others.

"The economy is really good right now, most landlords can fix things, you just need to bug them," he said.

But before problems start, he added that it is equally important to take preventative steps before moving into a new house or apartment.

"It's very important to talk to the people who are living there now," Wilson said.

Another important precautionary measure includes a close examination of the lease before signing it and if necessary, consultation with Student Legal Services.

By law, a landlord is not required to provide much safety measures on his property. The very minimum requires that the landlord provide locks on all doors and windows and a 60 watt bulb at every exit door. Locks should be easily removable or un-lockable without use of a key or any special knowledge in the event of an emergency.

All buildings built after 1992 are required to have sprinkler systems, but those built beforehand are not. If an old building is renovated, however, it must comply with the new building code and add installing sprinklers to its renovation plans.

"Most of the landlords we have spoken to have been very receptive to ideas for improving safety at their apartment complexes or what have you," University Police Capt. Michael Coleman said. "There are times when a landlord might do everything required by law but there may still be some things we would like him to do."

Despite complaints from student tenants, landlords say they do their best to serve tenants.

"The most important thing is that when someone's unhappy with something, we want to fix it," MSC regional manager Connie Dunn said.

(Cavalier Daily Associate Editor Claire Edwards contributed to this article).

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