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Is an Air Conditioner a Fixture or a Fitting?

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When it comes to differentiating between fixtures and fittings, there can be a lot of gray areas. Although property laws provide some guidelines, this debate still comes up often in real estate buyer-seller and tenant-landlord conflicts when determining what stays with the property. Since roughly 87% of households use some kind of air conditioning system, you may be wondering what the rules are for your cooling system. To put it simply, when it comes to A/C units, it typically depends on what kind you have.

Central air conditioning systems are usually built into the building structure and therefore considered fixtures. On the other hand, room air conditioners, such as window A/C units, are often more easily removed and therefore fall into the category of fittings.

However, this isn’t a hard and fast rule, and it can be helpful to know more if you ever need to navigate a dispute involving your A/C. Read on to learn more about the difference between fixtures and fittings, where your air conditioning system may fit in, and how to cool your home without running into problems.

Fixtures vs. Fittings

The debate between whether an item is a fixture or a fitting may come up when deciding what a tenant or buyer can take when they’re moving out. Fixtures are seen as integral parts of the home and expected to stay with the building, whereas fittings are considered personal property and can be moved.

Fixtures are typically permanently attached or “fixed” to the home, while fittings are temporarily attached or free-standing. Typically, removing a fixture would involve tools and/or damage to the property.

Here are some common examples of fixtures:

  • Built-in cabinets
  • Central heating system
  • Light fixtures
  • Plumbing installations
  • Bathroom suite (toilet, bathtub, sink)

On the other hand, Fittings can often be moved with minimal effort and little to no evidence of their removal. You can think of them as accessories rather than necessary components of the home.

Here are some common examples of fittings:

  • Refrigerator
  • Oven
  • Free-standing furniture
  • Curtains
  • Paintings

However, this list can vary by situation. For example, a built-in microwave is typically seen as a fixture, whereas a countertop appliance is usually considered a fitting. Many realtors navigate more nuanced situations using the MARIA test, an acronym designed to help identify fixtures vs. fittings:

  • Method of attachment: How is it attached to the home? If it’s permanently affixed with glue, screws, nails, or a similar holding, it’s likely a fixture. However, if a detachable structure holds it, it’s probably fitting.
  • Adaptability: How does it fit into the function of the area? If it works as an intrinsic part of the home’s design, it may be a fixture. For example, the State of California’s property tax rules from 1982 says that headsets and special stools designed to be used with a telephone switchboard could be considered fixtures. While these items aren’t physically attached to the building, they’re still expected to stay since the switchboard is a fixture and couldn’t be used properly without them, and vice versa.
  • Relationship of the parties: Which side of the deal are you on? Property dispute rulings often have a bias based on the parties’ relationship, with tenants favored over landlords and buyers favored over sellers. The idea behind this is that the sellers and landlords should have made the terms clear in drawing up the contract.
  • Intention: Can you make a reasonable assumption that the homeowner intended this to be a permanent part of the property when they built it? This is determined by what you’d infer by looking at the property’s item, not based on any written record between the parties.
  • Agreement: What’s written on the contract of sale? If an item’s status is debatable, the contact should clarify what is and isn’t included in the sale.

Where Does an Air Conditioner Fit Into This Debate?

Air conditioners can typically be broken down into two groups: room air conditioners and central air conditioners.

Room Air Conditioners

Room air conditioners are essentially the cooling equivalent of space heaters, as they’re designed to work only in the room they’re in. Window units can be wedged onto the ledge of a window, while portable units stand on the ground with a vent attached to the outside. 

Installing room air conditioners is relatively simple and can often be performed without a professional. Many units even come with their own mounting accessories, like this MIDEA MAW05M1BWT Window Air Conditioner.

While you can certainly install a window A/C on your own, it can be a tricky process at first. If you’re looking for a quick tutorial, I’d recommend checking out this seven-minute video from MegaSafetyFirst:

Even if you use screws or support brackets to secure your air conditioner in place, you can usually remove them easily without damaging the property. While screws sometimes constitute a permanent attachment to the building, most people use room air conditioners as a temporary solution. Therefore, you can assume that the tenant or homeowner who installed them didn’t intend to make them a permanent part of the property.

Central Air Conditioners

Central air conditioners, on the other hand, involve a more complicated installation process. While it’s certainly possible to install a central A/C system by yourself, many homeowners will save themselves a headache by hiring a professional to take care of it. 

A central air conditioner is usually either a split system, which has its components divided between one outdoor piece and another inside the house, or a packaged unit, which has the whole system in one place. While their structures differ slightly, both types are attached to the supply and return ducts that run through the house in order to bring cool air to each room.

Because this system is much more complex and impossible to uninstall without causing significant damage to the building, it’s considered a fixture and therefore expected to stay with the property when homeowners move out.

How To Cool Your Home Hassle-Free

Most states don’t require landlords to provide air conditioning for their tenants, which means that many homes and apartments don’t come with it. If you’re renting a property that falls into that category, you may want to install a room A/C unit. However, be sure to check the terms of your lease or ask your landlord directly before purchasing the air conditioner.

While most tenants can install their A/C with no problems, some landlords prohibit their tenants from installing portable and window units for aesthetic, financial, or liability reasons. If you’re facing opposition from your landlord, but air conditioning is a medical necessity for you, you can appeal based on housing discrimination under the Fair Housing Act.

On the other hand, if you’re trying to install air conditioning as a homeowner, you can install either a central system or individual units. While room units will be easier to install with a lower upfront cost, central A/C is often more efficient.

When weighing each option’s pros and cons, it’s important to note that a central air conditioning system will be left behind as a fixture. At the same time, individual units can be taken as your personal property. 

Although installing a central A/C system will run you $7,000 on average, having it built in will increase the appeal of your home when it’s time to sell, and some say it can even increase your property value by up to 10%. So while you won’t be able to take your air conditioning system with you, it can still be a worthwhile investment for the future.

Final Thoughts

Hopefully, this article helped clear up the difference between fixtures and fittings and what to expect when it comes to your air conditioner. Moving forward, if you’re not sure about what’s included in a sale or rental agreement, clarify it with your agent or realtor beforehand to be safe.