From the Forum – Difficulty with landlord re: AC Unit

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Difficulty with landlord re: AC Unit:

“We recently had some issues with our AC unit and had our landlord’s HVAC service come take a look at it. They informed us that it was malfunctioning because there was no filter in the unit – which was causing buildup on the coil(s).

There have been a few repairs/maintenance done on the AC unit in the past year – so it’s clearly someone from that service who removed our filter and didn’t replace it, or inform us that it needed to be replaced.

We’ve never changed the filters, because we have no idea how and have never had to worry about that in a rental unit before. Unfortunately, when I checked my lease agreement, it is listed as our responsibilities under a long list of other things that up until now – our landlord has gone above and beyond to take care of for us.

So, we fail at constantly checking on and changing the filters. But this damage was caused by whoever took the last filter out and said nothing.

The price tag on fixing this is over $1000 – which our landlord informs us we must pay for or he’s terminating our lease. I am just wondering if anyone has had a similar experience, knows anything about this issue, or has any advice at all?”

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26 Comment

  • I don’t know about the landlord/tenant issue at hand, but I can say that $1000 for cleaning the coils of an AC unit seems insane. I just had the two AC units in my home serviced, one of which had to have the coils cleaned, and the total coast for everything was $300.

    • I’m suspecting this is a forced-air HVAC system (perhaps a heat pump?), not a window A/C unit.

    • If they just need to be cleaned, Anonymous is correct that the quote is outrageously high. My HVAC guy told me I can do nearly as good a job spraying with my hose to clean coils as his company would do with their equipment. I opted for the former.

      But running without a filter for a while could lead to coil damage that is far worse than simple buildup and a cleaning might not cut it. If actual damage was done, then $1000 doesn’t strike me as wholly out of the ballpark (based on my limited HVAC knowledge, and having spent $600 total on my own unit on two occasions this summer).

    • If the $1,000 price is just for cleaning, I’d get another bid. If there’s something else that needs to be fixed, maybe you can discuss splitting the charge with your landlord? It seems unreasonable to associate all of the cost of a $1,000 repair with a lack of filters.

  • Good luck to your landlord on terminating your lease. It’s very well-documented how difficult it is to evict tenants in DC, and odds are you can have that clause invalidated in court, as standard maintenance is the responsibility of the property owner and not something he can push off on tenants. It’s almost absurd that he would even try! What if he has a tenant that doesn’t have the knowledge to perform this sort of maitanence, or who has a physical disability which prevents them from doing so?

    • There are things that a landlord can have in a lease – that a tenant signs – to maintain while living in a unit. Lightbulbs, a/c filters, batteries in smoke alarms. It’s all written out, perfectly legal (we have a legal lease written my a professional management company).
      You don’t have to SIGN the lease but it’s perfectly legal to have it in there. I’m not going to enter my tenants home every week to do things that a regular person can do. Now, if the tenant is in a wheelchair, for example, you make exceptions (if you’re a nice person) – but i still wouldn’t change lightbulbs and all that when it’s someone else’s home. That’s not how it works when you’re a tenant. A good landlord will do what they can to outline these things and show you around, but it’s a two way street.
      In this situation, the landlord should have known the filter was missing during the move-out check. But the tenant should also know that an a/c works best when its filter is regularly cleaned and have known about this months ago (depending on how long they’ve lived there). They should also know what responsibilities they have in a lease.

      • Yeah, this is pretty standard. Most rowhouses I’ve rented required I keep the yard maintained as well (even if I didn’t have a lawnmower). If the owner got fined for having 2 feet of weeds in the yard it would be on me to pay it.

  • you have no idea how to change an air filter??

    • Yeah, that’s kind of weird. But I can see not realizing the filter was missing if they’ve only been there a couple months.

  • How do landlords normally handle the air filters, I wonder? It seems silly to come over every month or two to replace them, but I wouldn’t trust the tenants to care enough to do it themselves.

    • Which is why this is typically written as the tenant’s responsibility into leases, and the subsequent damage their inattention may cause the responsibility of the tenant.

      Sounds like the OP is probably very young and has never had to really live on their own like this before and was used to this stuff just being taken care of by their parents. Its amazing how many people do not know how to do (or even that they should do) common everyday-life maintenance. (I knew so many people in college that had no idea they needed to change the oil in their car). I feel lucky that my parents taught me all of this from a young age saving me many expensive mistakes my friends made. Its too bad more parents don’t teach these things to their kids or there isn’t more “real life” guidance in school.

      I feel bad for the OP, its an expensive mistake for them to make and without any malice. And the landlord, in their own interest, probably should have been more explicit walking through the lease about what maintenance he/she expected the tenants to do and showing them how to do it. Especially in a town like DC where there are so many young renters that may not know. I think contractually its pretty clear cut that its the tenant’s responsibility. But, if I were the landlord, I would offer to split it and take it as a lesson learned on both sides.

      • Count yourself blessed. Not everyone has parents that are this generous. Not everyone has parents, period.

        I grew up in Buffalo where only half the homes have AC. I have lived in high rises in DC up until this point. Not that this should fully excuse me from tasks of this sort, but I think that at least warrants a little more responsiveness on the part of the landlord. Maybe just a heads up on what size filter to buy and how regularly to change it.

        Either way – all of these comments have been helpful. Unfortunately in this case, our Landlord demanded we use this service [Melron] and pay for it in full or else he would terminate our lease, which is now month to month.

        Lesson learned.

        • I’m sorry this has happened to you, but it’s not really your landlord’s responsibility to know much about you beyond your credit and rental history.
          Now, if there had been proof that the filter was missing during a walk thru, you’d be gravy. However, it wasn’t.
          I can’t say I know WHY your landlord will only use this contractor if you are willing to shop around for a cheaper rate (I personally wouldn’t care as long as the tenant took care of it).
          But I do agree, there are basic household repairs you need to learn how to deal with before living on your own. I’m sorry this is how you had to learn, it’s not a very positive experience.

        • I wouldn’t roll over and take this without talking to someone who knows the ins and outs of landlord tenant law in DC. You can start by getting FREE help at the Landlord Tenant Resource Center, which is located in the same building as landlord tenant court.

          Remember, landlord tenant law is VERY tenant friendly. I doubt the court would make you move out, even if you are responsible for the cost of repair.

        • Ya, understood. Totally reasonable that if you never lived in a place with central air before you wouldn’t know about the filter thing. And though it doesn’t necessarily excuse it, it sounds like your landlord is a bit of an ass.

  • PSA: Read your lease.

    Honestly… If you aren’t spending 15 minutes to actually read a contract that says you are on the hook to pay tens of thousands of dollars over the next year, you aren’t taking life very seriously.

    • Honestly, the way leases usually play out is they’re more like guidelines than a legally binding document.
      Also, if you challenge anything on the lease you risk losing the rental, which can be a huge mistake these days.

      • “Honestly, the way leases usually play out is they’re more like guidelines than a legally binding document.”
        False. If you’ve had problems with landlords in the past, that belief might be the reason.
        “Also, if you challenge anything on the lease you risk losing the rental, which can be a huge mistake these days.”
        Did I say that? I the OP had reviewed the lease, maybe he or she would have said “Hey, it says here I have to change the HVAC filter… how do I do that and how often do I need to?”
        That’s exactly why I sit down with new tenants and pretty much make them read it.

  • It is your responsibility as a renter to change out the filter regularly and it is landlord’s responsibility to service the unit. A responsible landlord knows how expensive it is to do any HVAC repair work and should stress the filter change during a walkthrough before you move in. If any repair was done while you were there, the HVAC service guy usually asks you for a filter or tells you that it needs to be replaces. Not sure which company your landlord uses to service the HVAC, but the practice is pretty standard with licensed ones. Here is your cheap fix….Go to Home Depot and get two cans of coil cleaner and a decent filter (should be $10.00 for two cans and about $15.00 for a decent filter). Unscrew HVAC cover and clean the coil, it may take two cans if this was not done for a while. Run the HVAC afterwards and see if this fixes your problem. If not, you’re kind of SOL (forgive my foul language) and start shopping around for HVAC tech. A word of advice, use Grainger to order any standard HVAC parts….it is way cheaper than going through the HVAC company. I splurged 90.00 bucks and bought 4 filters before my renter moved in to ensure the HVAC is well taken care of and we have a mutual understanding that the renter needs to change the filter every 90 days. I didn’t have to do that, but I rather pay 90.00 then having issues later. Good Luck!

    • good idea to provide a few filters so they know what to get and it’s a good reminder. Ours is contained, like a window unit, and a light comes on when it needs to be cleaned.

      But I wouldn’t buy cases of them and baby a tenant. This is what a background check is for, IMO.

    • uh…turn off the electricity to the unit before opening it, right?

      • A background check does not tell you anything, especially if the other owner wants to get rid of the tenant on their end. They can just give them the best recommendation to get rid off them. People with stellar credit, can be terrible high maintenance tenant(s) too. I don’t think buying a couple of filters is babying a tenant, especially if it’s a good tenant….

  • As a landlord I buy a stock of filters and leave them in the apt. I show the tenant how to change the filter. Yes, all kinds of things may be in your lease, and yes it is next to impossible to evict a tenant in DC, so if you fight this you could spend years before being evicted.

    But as for responsible well-intentioned humans? If I left you filters and you never changed them and the AC broke as result I would certainly charge your ass. But if I never checked to see if there was a (clean) filter in place on the day you moved in, I am SOL.

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