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Real Estate Today

Tenant Raises Roof Over Strong Ta Odor Seeping In

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Robert S. Griswold | Steven R. Kellman | Ted Smith
21-July-2002 Sunday

This column on issues confronting renters and landlords is written by Counselor of Real Estate and Certified Property Manager Robert Griswold, host of Real Estate Today! with Robert Griswold (9 a.m. Saturdays on AM1130 - KSDO radio, or on the Internet at, and by attorneys Steven R. Kellman, director of the Tenants' Legal Center, and Ted Smith, principal in a law firm representing landlords.

QUESTION: A couple of months ago, the roof of my apartment complex was retarred. During the process, we refrained from using our air conditioner because it produced a very strong tar odor. We've tried running the air conditioner again but the tar smell was still very strong.

The office manager called an air-conditioner maintenance technician, who smelled the tar odor, but couldn't locate the problem. Since then a representative from the roofing company and an on-site maintenance person have also investigated the problem. The roofing company rep smelled a slight odor, but the maintenance person didn't.

The hotter it is outside, the stronger the tar odor. No one else in my building has experienced this problem. The apartment manager asked me to call her when the odor was the strongest and she would come over and verify if she smelled it but I'm not sure what good that will do.

What can I do to get the situation resolved? I feel management is ignoring the problem.

ANSWER: Griswold:  It sounds like your landlord is making a reasonable effort to address the problem. The fact that the efforts haven't been successful doesn't mean they're not helpful in narrowing the possibilities.

It's unfortunate that no one has been able to pinpoint the source of odors but at least you have had three different sets of maintenance professionals look into it. My guess is that you are experiencing "normal" new roof smells. Tar has an extremely potent and pungent odor that many people can almost "taste" in the air.

Just as some individuals are extremely sensitive to tobacco smoke in the air, many people are more sensitive to tar and similar petroleum-based odors. That may be the reason certain individuals did not detect the smell in other units or even in your unit during their inspections.

The fact that the odor seems stronger when it is hotter outside combined with the report from the air-conditioner repair company that your air-conditioning system and ducts check out as clean and normal leads to one possible conclusion. My educated guess as a property manager for many years is that the odor is simply being picked up through the air intake on your air-conditioning system. While unpleasant, this is going to be prevalent for at least several weeks to a few months until the tar fully cures.

You may want to ask the landlord to consider a rent credit or abatement. However, I do not see any basis for a breach of habitability as your landlord is surely entitled and encouraged to properly maintain the property by reroofing and has made reasonable investigations into the problem.

For your concerns about the air quality, you can check with your local building department or code enforcement to see if they will investigate. If they do find issues with your air quality be sure to immediately notify your landlord in writing.

If they do not offer this service or you are not satisfied with their efforts, you may need to retain an industrial hygienist, which can be quite costly. This would be a personal decision and may be worth your peace of mind to ensure that your health and safety are not compromised.

Should the industrial hygienist recommend and you decide to conduct air sample tests, I would suggest that you notify the landlord in writing prior to the tests so that they can be present as well as the roofing firm or any other potentially relevant contractor.

Get insurance

Q: I am a new landlord and I was curious whether the standard renters' insurance policy covers the landlord for damage to the rental made by the tenant during their tenancy?

A: Smith: In most cases, no. The standard renter's insurance policy does not cover the landlord for ordinary damage to the rental made by the tenant during the tenancy. California law requires the tenant to keep the rental in good condition and repair but there is an allowance for ordinary wear and tear. The tenant's security deposit may be used by the landlord to cover damages beyond ordinary wear and tear.

When repairs and cleaning exceed the security deposit amount, the tenant is responsible. However, in the ordinary tenant damage case, the tenant's insurance coverage is not triggered.

Still, the tenant remains financially responsible for damaging the unit -- with or without tenant insurance. Some instances of vandalism or malicious mischief by the tenant or guests could invoke a claim under the renter's policy.

Of course, the landlord's own policy may provide coverage in the case of criminal vandalism. It should be noted that California law does not require a renter to have a tenant insurance policy in order to rent. This is a negotiable item between the landlord and tenant. Tenants are advised that, while renter's insurance may not be mandatory, it is a very good idea to have it.

If tenants desire to protect themselves in the rental, coverage for fire, theft, liability, workers compensation and other perils is strongly recommended.

Griswold: Even though a landlord will not be able to seek recovery for the routine damage caused by the day-to-day living or poor housekeeping of a tenant, there are many direct and indirect benefits to landlords when their tenants carry renter's insurance.

Therefore, while not legally required, it is my advice that prudent landlords require their tenant's to carry renter's insurance. Of course, the purpose of the renter's insurance is to provide reimbursement and liability coverage to the tenant in the event of a loss suffered by the tenant. However, a landlord could directly benefit in the event the tenant or their guests create a loss to the overall premises as the landlord's insurance provider could subrogate or seek contribution or reimbursement for the damages caused by the tenant.

IF YOU'RE A TENANT OR LANDLORD, the authors stand ready to answer your questions in this column, although letters cannot be answered individually. Write them at: Rental Roundtable, Homes Section, San Diego Union-Tribune, P.O. Box 120191, San Diego, CA, 92112-0191. Or you may e-mail them at

Copyright Union-Tribune Publishing Co.

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Robert Griswold and the Real Estate Today! radio show strongly support the intent and the letter of all federal and state fair housing laws.  As a reminder to all owners and managers of real estate, note that all real estate advertised is subject to the Federal Fair Housing Act, which makes it illegal to advertise "any preference, limitation, discrimination because of race, color, national origin or ancestry, religion, sex, physical disability, or familial status, or  intention to make any such preference, limitation or discrimination." Additional state and/or local fair housing laws may also apply.  Be sure to inform all persons that all dwellings offered or advertised are on an equal opportunity basis.


Revised and Updated - Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Robert S. Griswold, CRE, CPM, CCIM, PCAM, GRI, ARM
Griswold Corporate Center
Griswold Real Estate Management, Inc.
5703 Oberlin Drive, Suite 300
San Diego, CA 92121-1743
Phone: (858) 597-6100
Fax: (858) 597-6161


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