Liability risks for landlords
Reviewed by Stefan Tirschler
Updated March 23, 2023
Whether you’re renting out a basement suite or an entire multi-unit building, you’re a landlord, and that carries certain responsibilities.
If something goes wrong at your rental property, whether that’s an injury or damage to someone else’s property, you run the risk of being held liable. But not to worry; if you do your due diligence, you can manage your liability risks and avoid frustrating lawsuits. Even when you’re not legally liable for a situation, it can still lead to a headache—better to take care of business and avoid it altogether.
In this article, we’ll take a look landlords’ most important responsibilities, and the most common liability risks all landlords should be aware of.
The responsibilities of a landlord
In Canada, landlord responsibilities are mostly regulated at the provincial level. So, make sure you’re aware of the requirements set out by your home province (or more specifically, the province in which your rental property is located).
Fortunately, these responsibilities are broadly similar across the whole country.
Landlords always have the following obligations:
- Maintain at least minimum standards for health, safety, and maintenance.
- Keep their rental properties fit for habitation and in a good state of repair.
- Ensure their rental properties comply with local building codes and bylaws.
- Ensure that the rental home has electricity, hot and cold water, and other important utilities as stipulated in their rental agreement with tenants.
- Avoid interfering with their tenants’ reasonable and quiet enjoyment of the rental property.
- Never threaten, coerce, or otherwise harass their tenants.
These responsibilities are straightforward, and mostly obvious. But some landlords still feel the need to cut corners, or try to shift responsibility to their tenants.
That’s not a good plan; if a landlord doesn’t meet the minimum standards, they can find themselves embroiled in a lawsuit and made to pay damages (or at least have some disgruntled tenants).
Most landlords do a fine job of meeting their obligations. However, once you get into the fine details of each point listed above, it can get a little unclear exactly when something is the landlord’s responsibility or the tenant’s.
Let’s get into it.
Here’s a list of some of the most important potential risks a landlord faces. These are things that (aside from specific exceptions) fall within the landlord’s responsibility. If you stay on top of them, you’ll minimize the chances of having accidents, unhappy tenants, and legal troubles. The last thing a landlord wants to be is negligent.
Landlords must ensure their rental properties are safe and in good repair at all times. If they don’t maintain reasonable standards, they could be held liable in the event of an accident on the premises.
Here are a few of the things all landlords should make sure they stay on top of:
Doors and windows
The landlord must ensure the home’s exterior doors and windows all close securely and have sturdy locks. Faulty doors and windows can make the home an easy target for break-ins. They can also let cold air into the home, which might interfere with the landlord’s requirement to provide a properly heated unit (more on that further down).
If a window breaks due to wear and tear, or from a natural occurrence such as a hailstorm, the landlord will need to replace it. If a tenant breaks a window, the landlord still needs to ensure they have the window repaired promptly, but may be able to recoup the costs from the tenant.
Stairs, steps, and railings
Stairs, steps, and handrails must all meet local building codes. If they don’t, and a tenant or visitor slips and falls, liability for any injuries could end up with the landlord.
The same goes for steps or railings that fall into disrepair. Loose, rotten, or missing boards can cause serious injury, and it’s the landlord’s job to take care of them before the worst happens. That extends to flooring as well—a rotting floorboard or loose corner of carpet could seriously injure someone.
Vents and chimneys
If a rental unit has a fireplace, it’s the landlord’s responsibility to maintain the chimney. That means having it cleaned at appropriate intervals. Plugged up chimneys are serious fire hazards.
Chimneys should be inspected and cleaned annually, assuming they’re in regular use. Some landlords instruct their tenants to use the fireplace sparingly, or even lock out the fireplace entirely. In some jurisdictions, the tenant needs to clean the fireplace at the end of the tenancy (if they used it).
It’s also the landlord’s responsibility to keep outdoor vents clear. That includes vents for the dryer, kitchen, furnace, or anything else.
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Health and safety risks
Tripping and falling hazards
The aforementioned steps, stairs, and floorboards are a tripping hazard, yes. But so are things like extension cords or hoses. If the landlord has any such things on the premises, they need to make sure they’re not in the way.
Of course, tenants do have a responsibility of their own: items belonging to them, like children’s toys or garden tools. If the tenant’s stuff is lying around and leads to an injury, blame would fall to them instead of the landlord.
Icy walkways and steps also pose a problem.
Deciding who needs to clear steps and walkways of snow can be contentious. But, the rule of thumb is that it’s the landlord’s responsibility in homes with multiple units, or when the tenant is renting only a part of the home. In cases where a tenant is renting the entire house, it should be them clearing the snow.
In some cases, the landlord could satisfy their obligation by arranging to have the tenants clear the walkways—provided those arrangements are made beforehand. Landlords should ensure that maintenance responsibilities are agreed upon in writing at the beginning of each lease—co-signed by both themselves and their tenants.
Landlords must ensure their rental units are fire safe. To make sure that’s true, landlords should do the following:
- Install smoke and carbon monoxide detectors as required throughout the unit.
- Inspect and service those detectors regularly (minimum once per year, and ask tenants to test them monthly).
- Ensure there are at least two possible emergency exits from the unit.
- Avoid placing locked security bars on any windows or doors that are necessary for emergency escape.
- Provide at least one portable fire extinguisher on each floor.
- Provide fire safety information to the tenants.
On the final point, landlords should make sure their tenants have all the information they need to prevent fires, respond to fires quickly, and evacuate safely if the worst should happen. That means knowing the location of fire extinguishers, smoke detectors, and emergency exits. Tenants should also know that they need to keep emergency routes clear at all times, and who to call in the event of a fire.
If a landlord doesn’t take appropriate steps towards fire safety, they could be liable in the event of an accident.
Landlords must also ensure that their rental unit has sufficient lighting (from a safety perspective).
Mainly, this applies to lighting in outdoor and communal areas of a rental building. If lighting in these areas is poor, and that leads to an injury, it would be the landlord who is liable.
Tenants handle lightbulb replacement within their own units. However, the actual light fixtures are the responsibility of the landlord. In the case of newer built-in lighting fixtures with permanent LED bulbs that cannot be replaced, any problems with the fixture are the responsibility of the landlord.
The landlord must ensure that their rental units are capable of maintaining a comfortable minimum temperature at all times.
Most provinces stipulate a minimum temperature that rental units need to be able to reach—typically around 20 °C, give or take a degree. If the unit’s heating system can’t maintain that minimum, even during a severe cold snap, the landlord needs to take action.
Even if the tenants are perfectly happy in a cold house, it’s still important to have adequate heating to avoid frozen pipes.
If there are trees on the property, the landlord is in charge of upkeep.
Trees don’t take a lot of work, of course. But, if there are any dead branches, the landlord should have them safely removed before they fall (or get ripped loose in a windstorm). If any trees die or become sick, they should promptly be treated or removed for similar reasons.
Other liability concerns
Tenants’ personal information
Like any business, landlords must comply with the Personal Information Protection and Electronic Documents Act, also known as PIPEDA.
PIPEDA lays out rules for how businesses (or landlords) handle the personal information of their customers (or tenants). As a landlord, you may not be dealing with piles of personal information, but there’s certainly some involved—especially tenants’ applications.
In order to stay on the right side of PIPEDA, landlords have the following obligations:
- Obtain consent from applicants or tenants before collecting, using, or disclosing any personal information.
- Clearly identify the reasons for collecting personal information.
- Provide a person access to personal information you’ve collected from them, if requested.
- Use personal information only for the reason it was collected.
- Keep personal information stored privately and securely.
It may seem like a hassle, but complying with PIPEDA is worth the effort—violations can lead to fines of up to $100,000.
Even if a landlord has done everything else from this list perfectly, it’s all for nothing if there’s no proof.
It’s crucial to keep good records as a landlord. If something should ever go wrong at the rental property, the landlord needs to demonstrate that they’ve done their due diligence. Otherwise, they could be found liable for damages even if they’ve done everything else right.
In addition to properly collecting and safeguarding tenants’ personal information, landlords should also keep careful track of maintenance.
That includes a detailed log of inspections and maintenance. What got inspected, or repaired? When did it happen? If third-party contractors were involved, keep contracts and invoices.
On a related note, only hire licensed contractors who can guarantee their work.
Home insurance considerations
Even when you do everything right, things can still go wrong.
That’s where landlord insurance comes in. Of course, landlord insurance protects the rental unit itself, plus any of the landlord’s own stuff that they keep at the property. But landlord insurance also includes premises liability coverage.
This important coverage ensures that the landlord has protection if someone is injured at their rental property. Whether the landlord is ultimately found liable or not, the coverage will help pay the legal costs of defending the case (plus damages if they are liable). For non-injury-related issues, like disputes with tenants or neighbours, it may be worth adding legal protection coverage as well. It’s also highly advisable to require your tenants to have tenant insurance—that’s an added layer of protection if the tenants are involved in a loss.
While premises liability coverage helps in cases where a third party is injured or has their property damaged, there are still other scenarios where a landlord might be held responsible for something. That’s why it’s important to know one’s responsibilities as a landlord; if you stay on top of these things, you’ll have a lot less to worry about.
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About the expert: Stefan Tirschler
Stefan is responsible for underwriting leadership, market expansion, and product research and development for Square One's operations. Stefan has earned his Fellow Chartered Insurance Professional designation, and maintains a level 2 general insurance license in British Columbia, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Ontario. Stefan is also an Education Committee member and CIP/GIE instructor for the Insurance Institute of Canada.