"Without any advanced notification to the rental property owner, can a property management company authorize repairs reported over a weekend by the tenant as an 'emergency' and charge the owners for those repairs?"
- Denise from Maryville, TN
That's a great question that can usually be answered by a close reading of your contract with the property management company. Since no contract can anticipate every possible emergency or special situation that can come up, it's quite standard for a landlord to delegate a certain amount of authority to their property management company to act decisively in the event of a maintenance emergency, especially when it's necessary to prevent further damage to the unit.
That said, this authority to act decisively is delegated by the landlord. You could choose not to delegate this authority or, as rental property owners more commonly do, delegate the authority to spend only up to a certain amount of money on a repair before getting further approval.
At any rate, there are two important follow-up questions here:
These questions are answered below.
It's difficult to nail down what is and what isn't an emergency. What feels like an emergency to the tenant may not feel like an emergency to the landlord. People of good faith can differ about what the threshold for emergencies is, and there should be a presumption of good faith involved in any healthy relationship between a landlord and their property management company.
We haven't taken a formal survey, but most property management companies and veteran landlords use this test for establishing emergencies:
There is a contextual element in the second question. A hopelessly clogged toilet in a unit with two bathrooms may not constitute an emergency, but a clogged toilet in a unit with just one bathroom would probably pass this test.
You should also consider your state's habitability rules. In your case, the law to look at is the Tennessee Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act. Section 66-28-304 requires that landlords "make all repairs and do whatever is necessary to put and keep the premises in a fit and habitable condition."
According to that rule, if there is a delay in repairing the emergency that would have forced the tenant to secure alternative housing, they would potentially be able to deduct those costs from their rent - and also snag you with attorneys' fees. Some types of damage, including fire damage, even allow a tenant to move out and terminate a lease.
So, in many cases, a property manager that makes repairs without first seeking authorization may save you a bundle when you consider the costs associated with the averted damages - including the loss of weeks or months of future rental income.
If you believe the property management company breached their contract by making repairs without authorization when they should have done so, then you may feel the need to part ways with them.
In such a situation, you may have the right to terminate the property management company's contract immediately, but they'll probably subtract what they believe you owe them from your deposit and possibly from the rent you collect - and you'll have to do some collecting, or even file a lawsuit, in order to recover your money.
This seems like more trouble than it's worth for something like this, however, and it therefore might be better to not terminate the contract. If the emergency requiring rapid, unauthorized repairs is unlikely to reoccur, you may be better off waiting until the contract expires.
Please note: If you believe the property management company didn't get a good price, remember that emergency repairs are usually much more expensive than routine, prescheduled work. Anyone who's ever tried to get a plumber to their house at midnight on a weekend can attest to this!