Q: I’m a long time reader, first time writer and I’m hoping you can help me. My husband and I own a rental property in Vacaville. It’s a single family home that we raised our children in, but they’re now grown and gone. We’ve moved to a senior community. Because the market was so bad we decided to keep the house and rent it out, which is what we’ve been doing since 2009 to the same tenants. Until now they’ve been great. Last month they signed another two-year lease with us and we gave them a big break in the rent because they’ve been so trouble-free. Recently the wife was involved in a very serious car accident and then suffered a stroke in the hospital. She came home a few weeks ago in a wheelchair and now needs 24- hour care. The husband has come to us and said that he either needs to break the lease or we need to make a number of changes to the house to accommodate the wife’s condition. Among those are a ramp to the front and back doors, an electric lift chair so she can get to the second floor, a bathtub she can roll her chair into, and a widening of several doorways so she can get her chair through. He also wants the carpets removed and replaced with hardwood so she can move her chair more easily. That sounds like a bunch of money and would ultimately leave the house undesirable for the next occupants. While we feel nothing but compassion for the wife, we feel that a contract is a contract and we should be able to hold them to the two-year lease without having to put a lot of extra money into the house. What does the law say about such things?
A: Well, let me start by being blunt. It seems your compassion doesn’t quite reach down all the way down to your wallet.
Certainly you could appreciate their situation and simply let them out of their lease so they could find a more appropriate place to live. How much money do you stand to lose? A month’s rent until you could get someone else in there?
But I’m a lawyer and my job is to educate you about the law, not morality. The laws that control a situation such as this are defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act, as well as various state regulations that are offshoots of the federal law.
The ADA requires that “reasonable” accommodations be made with the intent of providing reasonable access to persons with disabilities. This applies to businesses, publically owned places such as streets and public buildings and housing.
As a California landlord, you are a business owner. You own a property investment business, regardless of whether you think of it that way or not. As a business owner you have certain obligations.
Now here’s where it gets a little tricky.
If you were, say, a restaurant there would be a host of building amenities you would have to add, on your dime, in order to comply with the law. E.g. toilets with hand grips, ramps to a door, special parking, etc. However, in a private residence, the requirements are different.
The owner of a single-family house doesn’t have to provide wheelchair access just in case a family with a wheelchair wants to live there. But your situation is a little different.
You already have a tenant who has entered into a long-term lease. And you want to keep them bound by the lease.
In that event, you do have to make reasonable accommodations if that’s feasible. I should say “reasonably” feasible since I guess in the abstract anything is possible. In this case, the ramp to the door really isn’t a big deal and can be removed later. However, the roll-in bathtub may be economically unfeasible since I can only imagine how much something like that would cost to buy and install. Same with the electric lift on the stairs.
In fact, you could say the same thing about widening the doorways and reflooring. Remember the cost includes not just doing the work, but reversing it someday.
On the other hand, what may be economically unreasonable if you paid for it may be very reasonable if the tenant is willing to pay for the installation and removal.
Look, if I’m in your shoes, I offer to let them out of the lease as soon as they can find another home. And in the meantime, I show the house to perspective new tenants. There are plenty of good tenants out there.
But if you’re determined to fight over this, understand that you will be fighting over federal and state ADA laws and what constitutes reasonable or unreasonable accommodation.
And in front of a jury, I’m pretty sure you’re going to lose the sympathy vote.
Tim Jones is a real estate attorney in Fairfield. If you have any real estate questions you would like answered in this column you can contact him at SolanoScene@TJones-Law.com.