Dear Piggy: Doesn’t my Landlord have to repaint every year?

In keeping with the spirit of normal Chicago apartments, this will be the only color in the whole article.


"I thought my landlord had to repaint every X number of years?" I get this question all the time. Usually from tenants who are either a) looking for a reason to move, b) looking for a reason to sue their landlord, c) looking for a fight, d) looking for permission to repaint their apartment in a different color of their choice, or e) originally from other states where such things actually are required. The short answer for Chicago apartments is NO. Your landlord is not required to repaint.

It's an urban legend, guys. In fact, they're not allowed to enter your apartment for any reason unless you tell them something is broken, something is obviously broken like water overflowing into another apartment, or they're showing the apartment. However, like all urban legends it has its roots in the truth.

Paint has a Prime Directive

Did you know that paint doesn't actually exist to make your space look pretty? I mean, yes, it does have that effect some of the time, but it's really there to protect the underlying drywall, wood, brick or plaster that lies beneath. It's much less expensive to repaint than it is to replace a wall altogether. In fact, landlords with HUD-sponsored tenants (in other words, Section 8 tenants) are required to go through annual inspections and damaged/chipped/cracking paint is one of the major reasons why these landlords fail.

It grows on you after a while.

So there is a grain of truth in the assumption that apartments must be repainted every year. There are special situations in Chicago where it's kind of true, although not in the sense that most tenants have in mind. Section 8 apartments need to have damaged paint replaced. In fact, given that paint has a preventative purpose, damaged paint should be reported for repair just like a clogged toilet or a broken light fixture. But does every Chicago apartment need to have every surface repainted annually? No.

Some States are Nosier than Others

There are certainly some states and cities where landlords actually are required to repaint. New York City requires repainting ever 3 years. Wisconsin landlords must repaint between tenants. Other states have established through court cases what is and isn't acceptable when it comes to charging tenants for the cost of paint. The general feeling that I get from reviewing some of these cases is that landlords should expect to repaint every 3-5 years regardless of whether the law says so or not, and regardless of how long their tenants have been in the unit.

Of course, there are also states and cities with other restrictions on landlords that we don't have here. Rent control, for example, is prevalent in New York, DC and San Francisco but banned by law here in Chicago. Massachusetts restricts how many fees can be collected up front from tenants. Many towns require landlords to obtain licenses and attend crime-free housing classes before they can rent out their property.

So, if you're reading this and you're not thinking of a Chicago apartment, sorry. I'm not really talking to you here and you'll have to do some more local research before you'll find your answer. Hopefully you've learned something by stopping by regardless!

Don't Use a Sledgehammer To Crack an Egg

A tenant who has recently moved from New York or Wisconsin might assume that repainting is required here just like it is back home. A tenant who grew up in public housing might think that an annual touch up is the law for all apartments. I can see why the urban legend is popular, and these guys would be excused for believing it. As for the rest who believe it or claim to? I think there's a deeper problem that needs to be addressed.

A recent reader who found us via Google came in using a very interesting search term: "How to show no fear to a landlord when speaking." Mystery visitor, I don't know who you are but I think you just asked a question that a lot of people wonder about in private. It's a loaded question, don't you think? Wrapped up in that question is the assumption that this particular type of conversation triggers a fight-or-flight reflex. Most of us don't worry about "showing no fear" when we talk to, say, a librarian or a grocery store clerk. It's reserved for conversations with attractive members of your preferred gender, police officers, criminals, bosses and landlords. People with power, people with weapons. Scary stuff.

Maybe it's better as a flower?

I think that for a lot of tenants, they need to know that the law is protecting them when they "go into battle" against their landlord. It becomes their weapon, even though for the most part it's hardly necessary. For some reason it's easier for a lot of tenants to head into the landlord's office guns blazing with "You haven't repainted in 3 years! You should have done so every year! You HAVE to repaint my apartment NOW! It's the LAW!" rather than, say, "Hey, I've been living in this place for 3 years. The paint in my place is looking a little worn. Would it be possible to get a refresher?"

Somewhere in between those two questions is the evolution of the 30 page landlord-tenant ordinance, but I digress.

So, here's a better route. Let's figure out when it's OK to ask for a touch up, when it's OK to ask for a full repaint.

Does your apartment need a touch up?

A1) Have you been in the apartment for more than 2 years?
A2) Alternately, if you've been in the apartment for less than 2 years, did you move in hard on the heels of the prior tenant's departure? Like, with less than 24 hours in between?
A3) Are you a Section 8/CHAC tenant with an inspection coming up?

B1) Is the paint damaged? (Cracking, bubbling, peeling, flaking, etc.)?
B2) Is the paint dirty beyond what you can wash off with some warm water & a little vinegar?

If one from part A and one from part B apply, then you can probably ask your landlord to come in and touch up the damaged/dirty sections. Touch ups are cheap, easy, and good preventive maintenance. Before you go all legal-eagle on him, remind him that healthy paint means less chance of damage to the underlying walls. Worst case scenario, offer to do the touch up yourself if he supplies a little touch up paint.

Does your apartment need a full repaint?

1) Have you been in the apartment for more than 3 years?
2) If you've been in there for 3 years or less, was the previous tenant a smoker? (A year old paint job slapped on top of cigarette tar will eventually get dingy from the tar eating through the paint. Gross but true.)
3) Was the apartment left a bunch of funny colors after the prior tenant moved out?

If any of the above are true, then you may be a candidate for a full repaint. Be aware that this is pretty expensive - at least $500 to spray the walls of an unfurnished studio, going into the thousands for a painter to roll & brush paint a large, furnished 3 or 4 bedroom rental with lots of baseboards, crown molding and crannies. Also be aware that a full repaint will require covering all of your furniture, removing all of your wall decorations (including hanging hardware), dealing with fumes and strangers in your home for several days.

No? How about a hippo?

If you're seriously willing to endure all of that for new paint, then ask your landlord very nicely if he's willing to drop a few Benjamins to keep you on as a tenant. Mention - gently - that he'll probably have to repaint it anyhow if you move out. Be flexible and willing to schedule the repaint at a time when he'll already have workers painting elsewhere in the building to minimize the overhead. Remind him that capital improvements like interior paint are fully depreciated on tax returns after 3 years, so if he wants to keep taking that as a loss he'll need to repaint anyhow. Oh, and if you want to avoid having your rent increased to go along with the service, you may want to offer to split the cost.

Remember, a full repaint is a luxury unless you've been there for a really long time.

In Chicago there's not a whole lot of landlords who are in it just for the money. There's plenty of easier cities for renting out property. I'd venture to say that there's very few landlords in Chicago who are so focused on the rent income that they lose sight of the importance of protecting their investment. (If you have one of those, send them a link to this article which explains why that narrow focus might be a bad idea.) Taking the viewpoint of a tenant who actually cares about their living space is a far less confrontational route than throwing the book at them or trying to get them to believe urban legends about paint.