Realty Bites

Who is responsible for fixing a rental's clogged drain: You or your landlord?

  • Plumbing problems are a landlord's responsibility but tenants should mind what goes down the drain
  • Using inexpensive drain caps or mesh covers to catch debris is an easy way to keep pipes clear
Freelance journalist and editor Evelyn Battaglia
By Evelyn Battaglia  |
December 13, 2023 - 12:30PM
reality bites brick underground

Some minor plumbing problems can be handled yourself.


I'm a New York City renter and my shower is starting to back up. Am I responsible for clearing clogged drains, or is that the super’s job?

Many residential buildings in New York City—and their plumbing systems—are very old, so living in one often means expecting a clogged bathroom drain to happen. And when it does, your shower can quickly go from “ahh” to “ugh” as water starts rising above your feet. 

If you own your place, these kinds of things are pretty much all on you. But a perk of being a renter is that your landlord is responsible for many of your apartment’s repairs. 

[Editor's Note: Realty Bites tackles your NYC rental questions. Have a query for our experts? Drop us an email. We respect all requests for anonymity.] 

Whether a clogged drain qualifies as the kind of repair that your landlord must make depends on the circumstances, though the experts Brick spoke to say the easy answer is yes. 

"This sounds like a definite landlord responsibility, but that doesn’t mean a tenant can’t do a better job to reduce or prevent the backup from happening in the first place," says Arik Lifshitz, CEO of DSA Property Group. 

"Anything that can be cleaned without the use of a 'snake' or other specialized tool should be done regularly by the tenant," he says, adding that a drain cap or mesh cover can also be purchased (they’re very cheap), which would catch more hair and debris before it goes down the drain.

"But ultimately, if a snake is needed to clean out a clog, it’s the landlord’s responsibility," Lifshitz says. "There are always exceptions to every rule, and I can imagine egregious situations on both sides that would cause one or the other party to be liable."

Adam Frisch, senior managing director of leasing for Mantus Real Estate, agrees. "Landlords are legally required to repair or replace anything structural, which includes plumbing. Plus it would be unreasonable to expect a tenant to fix the drain beyond a certain point in the necessary time frame and in the proper way to prevent it from causing plumbing issues throughout the building," he says. 

However, Frisch says why the drain became clogged is another matter. 

"If it became clogged due to tenant negligence or was done maliciously, and if there's proof of that, a landlord could conceivably charge the tenant," he says. He adds that a consistent pattern of clogs would be a red flag, especially if your landlord has explained that whatever you are doing is not allowed. 

Who is responsible for fixing a clogged drain?
  • Must repair or replace anything structural, including plumbing.
  • Should take steps to keepthe clogged drain from causing issues elsewhere.
  • Has the special tools and know-how to make more serious repairs.
  • Must reduce the risk of clogged drains, such as with a drain cover. 
  • Should avoid pouring things into drains that don't belong (like grease). 
  • Expected to try and fix it with a plunger or drain cleaner.
What can happen
  • Tenants might be charged for repeated problems that could have been avoided.
  • In extreme cases, the landlord might not renew the lease or seek eviction.

That said, most landlords are understanding and know backups happen, but if (for example) they pull your kid's bath toys or other things that simply don’t belong out of the pipes more than once, don’t be surprised they ask for a reimbursement—or, in very extreme cases, refuse to renew your lease or even move to evict. 

What's more, you can get into trouble if you are repeatedly flushing things down the toilet that are not meant to be flushed, such as paper towels or hygiene products.

The same goes for pouring non-dissolvable items like grease or food fat down the drain (or into said toilet). 

When plumbing problems go very wrong

Lest you wonder what could possibly happen, improperly disposed cooking grease was to blame for the infamous Queens "fatberg" of 2017 that resulted in major sewer backups. On that note, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection says the proper way to deal with cooking grease is to put it in a sealed, non-recyclable container (like a take-out container) with your regular garbage. The DEP also says you should use paper towels to wipe any residual grease or oil from your dishes, pots, and pans before washing them.

Most leases don't contain any language for this situation, though Frisch has been noticing an uptick over the past few years for maintenance in general—the higher the rent, the greater the expectation that things will be fixed fast and at no cost. 

"Probably what should happen is that we add a rider to the lease that says if you call the super more than three times for the same issue, we will charge you $50," Frisch says.

Meantime, if your drain is backed up and you've done all you can do (e.g., grab a plunger or use Drano), it's time to call in the super. And if you don't get any help, tenants are advised to call 311 for "sinks, bathtubs, showers, toilets, or other plumbing fixtures that are broken or defective." 

Earlier versions of this article contained reporting and writing by Nikki M. Mascali.

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Freelance journalist and editor Evelyn Battaglia

Evelyn Battaglia

Contributing Writer

Freelance journalist and editor Evelyn Battaglia has been immersed in all things home—decorating, organizing, gardening, and cooking—for over two decades, notably as an executive editor at Martha Stewart Omnimedia, where she helped produce many best-selling books. As a contributing writer at Brick Underground, Evelyn specializes in deeply reported only-in-New-York renovation topics brimming with real-life examples and practical advice.

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