Landlord's Duty to Maintain Pipes and Plumbing
Landlords must repair the pipes and plumbing in a rental unit and maintain them in good shape. They are obligated to do so under at least two separate, though related, theories: 1) The lease requires it; and 2) The "implied warranty of habitability."
Violations of the Lease
Primarily the law looks to the lease itself, whether written or oral (an oral lease is often called a verbal lease or agreement, but oral is the better term). A tenant pays an agreed-upon amount of money, the rent, to obtain premises in a certain, habitable condition. If the premises are not maintained in the condition which the tenant agreed to rent (which presumably included working plumbing), then there is a violation of the lease—the tenant is not getting what he or she paid for. Since the lease is a contract, the tenant can enforce it against the landlord.
Violations of the Implied Warranty of Habitability
In addition, the “implied warranty of habitability” requires that rental units be safely habitable—and that in turn includes having working plumbing. While the implied warranty of habitability won’t necessarily require a landlord to fix that small but annoying drip keeping you up at night—since the premises are still habitable—larger plumbing problems that greatly affect the habitability and which cause health and/or safety issues, such as mold, must be addressed. If not, the tenant may often have the option of paying rent into escrow until repairs are made.
Damage Caused by Broken Pipes and Plumbing Problems
So the landlord has to keep essential plumbing (e.g.the toilet) working. What happens if there is a leak and the tenant’s belongings are damaged? In that case, if the landlord violated a duty to maintain the plumbing, he may also have been legally negligent. If the cause of the leak was negligence—for example, carelessness in maintaining or fixing the pipes—the landlord may well be responsible for any damages or losses caused by the negligence. Negligence may be established, for example, if the tenant can demonstrate a pattern of having told the landlord of a non-working plumbing system or worsening leak, which the landlord then effectively (if not actually) ignored. If the landlord didn’t fulfill his duty to keep the plumbing in good order, he could be responsible for paying for any losses, which would include property damage (e.g. if the tenant’s belongings are damaged) or a heightened water bill.
The tenant, however, must also act with diligence. This translates into both a duty to mitigate the damage (moving property out of the way of water for example) and to act responsibly to notify someone to alleviate the damaging condition.
Of course, sometimes water leaks will happen without it being anyone’s fault—or sometimes they’re even the tenant’s fault, as when a tenant kept heat too low and pipes froze and burst. If the damage was not caused by the landlord’s actions or negligent inaction—in other words, if the landlord did everything reasonably expected of him or her—then the landlord may avoid responsibility for property damage or a water bill.
Check Your State's Laws
The determining factor will be the legal decisions in the state, which help determine where exactly that line between liability and non-liability fall. Different states have differing attitudes...sometimes favoring landlords, sometimes favoring renters. In all cases, the landlord would have to repair the pipes, but whether he or she is responsible for damages will depend on whether he or she was negligent—which in turn depends in large part on where that line has been drawn in the state in question.
Of course, if the tenant has renter’s insurance, he or she could file a claim for any losses under the policy. Critically, however, since the tenant is not legally required to carry insurance, many renters lack it.
Note also that if the tenant caused the pipes to leak or burst, the landlord could charge the tenant for the cost of repair! The obligation to act responsibly is designed to benefit both parties to the lease.