Iowa Supreme Court takes up landlord-tenant law

by Rox Laird | May 9, 2016

It has been a matter of law in Iowa for more than four decades that tenants have a right to expect that a rented apartment or house will be fit for human habitation.

The Iowa Supreme Court last week clarified the meaning of that right in a ruling saying a landlord cannot bill the tenant for the cost of repairs to make the property habitable.

That issue emerged in a landlord-tenant dispute in Iowa City that touched on a number of issues. Among them: how much the downtown Iowa City landlord could deduct from the tenants’ damage deposit, whether the student tenants could sublet the house over the summer and whether they could be automatically charged for carpet cleaning regardless of the carpets’ condition.

The case progressed from small-claims court to district court to the Iowa Supreme Court over the past six years. With late charges and attorney fees factored in, the total cost at issue exceeded several thousand dollars.

At the heart of the dispute, however, was a $598.46 bill to repair an exterior door damaged during a burglary.

The tenants argued it was not their fault a burglar broke the door and lock, making the apartment unsecure. The landlord, in response, pointed to the signed lease agreement, which said the tenant was responsible for the cost of repairs of all damaged windows and doors, regardless of who was responsible.

An exterior door that locks is clearly essential to maintaining the habitability of the rental house, but the landlord maintained he met that requirement by making the repair and billing the tenant for his materials and labor costs.

The court, in a 4-3 decision, disagreed.

“We reject this approach,” the court said in an opinion written by Justice Brent Appel. “In light of the history of the development of landlord–tenant law, we do not think it can be fairly concluded that the legislature intended the statutory duty of the landlord to ‘make all repairs and do whatever is necessary to put and keep the premise in a fit and habitable condition’ to be satisfied by merely making repairs and shifting the costs to the tenant pursuant to categorical provisions in the original lease agreement.”

While the Court said a tenant may separately agree to make necessary repairs, a standard preliminary lease may not be used to bill tenants for the cost of such repairs made by the landlord.

Three justices, however, did not accept that distinction in this case. Writing in dissent, Justice Edward Mansfield said the Iowa City apartment lease explicitly said tenants “are responsible for the cost of all damages/repairs to windows, screens, doors, carpet, and walls, regardless of whether such damage is caused by residents, guests or others.”

That lease provision, Mansfield argued, “imposed on the tenant the duty to pay for a repair that the law authorized the parties to agree would be the tenant’s responsibility.”

All seven justices agreed on one thing, however: A landlord cannot automatically deduct from a damage deposit the cost of cleaning carpets regardless of their condition.  “It is possible,” Justice Appel wrote, “that a landlord may be able to impose a nonrefundable charge on tenants for automatic carpet cleaning. ”  But the charge can’t automatically come out of the deposit, regardless of whether condition of the carpet goes “beyond the ordinary wear and tear.” 


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