Rental costs can be very high, especially in cities, and sometimes you may have to move into an apartment that isn’t perfect. This compromise doesn’t mean the apartment should be unsafe or unhealthy. The law says rental property owners must make any repairs or improvements necessary to ensure that your home is safe and livable. Here is some basic information explaining the moves you can make if your landlord refuses to make necessary repairs and improvements.
Property owners are legally required to repair problems that make the home unsafe. Some examples of common, serious problems are:
- No heat or hot water.
- Roof leaks or broken windows that let in rain and snow.
- Out-of-control pest problems.
- Serious plumbing or electrical problems, like toilets that don’t flush, no drinkable running water, or outlets that shock you.
- High levels of lead, asbestos, or mold.
Each State has specific laws protecting tenants. Directories of State laws are available online. You can also check your State’s Consumer Protection Agency website. You’ll find more information about what they consider a serious problem, and exactly what types of paperwork and documents will need to be filled out.
What Should I Do When I Encounter a Problem?
If you have a problem similar to the ones outlined above and cannot get it fixed, the law is on your side, but you need to have proof of the issue before you can act. The first things to do if you have a serious problem in your apartment are:
Document the problem. You need to prove that the problem exists, is serious, and wasn’t your fault. Take pictures and keep any receipts, bills, or medical records related to the situation. You can also get a licensed contractor to look at the problem and sign a letter explaining how serious it is.
Make a formal request for repairs. Check your state’s laws on exactly what notice you have to give. You usually have to ask for the repair in writing, and you may have to mail your request through registered mail and get a receipt. In most states, owners get 10-30 days to fix the problem unless it’s very urgent and pressing.
Keep your correspondence. Be sure to keep copies of all written requests and responses, and mail receipts if you use registered mail. Make sure everything has the date and your signature on it.
What Are My Legal Options?
Often, just sending an official written request can resolve the issue. Your landlord will understand that you’re putting together a legal case that may lead to you taking action. If you still don’t get results, try these strategies.
Contact a Safety Inspector
How you do this depends on your city and state. If you perform a search for “[your town] + housing safety inspector” you should find information on local inspectors: you may specifically request an inspection, or just file a complaint with the city. Either way, your local housing safety authorities will look into it.
Pros: Your landlord will have to make the repair. You can stay in your home, let the city take care of the legal part, and get the repairs done.
Cons: If a serious problem affects the whole building, safety inspectors may shut the building down as they make all the repairs. It’s a good idea to have a temporary place you can stay in case this happens.
In most states, if your landlord refuses to make your home safe, you don’t have to pay rent. Depending on your state, you’ll usually have to give more than one written notice, and sometimes you’ll have to deposit the rent money in a special account. Nolo, a legal resource website, offers some quick breakdowns and resources on state laws about withholding rent.
Pros: You don’t have to pay money to live somewhere unsafe, and your landlord will have to fix the problem if they want your money.
Cons: Your landlord could try to evict you. They can’t do this if you’ve followed proper procedure, but you’ll want to be sure you’ve done everything right and have all your documents and evidence ready if they try. It can also take a while to get action, so it won’t help if you need an immediate fix.
Pay for Repairs Out of Rent
If the repairs required are on a scale you can take care of yourself, but can’t afford, you can take the costs out of your rent. Again, check your state laws and be sure to get a licensed contractor (like a plumber or electrician) to do the repairs.
Pros: You’ll get the problem fixed faster. This is the only option where you don’t have to wait.
Cons: States have limits on how much you can spend on these repairs, so if it’s something big like a leaking roof, this option may not help. You’ll have to have substantial documentation, just as you would if you decide to withhold rent, to make sure your landlord can’t evict you.
Go to Court
Look up how to file in Small Claims Court in your state. Small Claims Court procedures are usually not difficult, even without a lawyer. You’ll ask the court to reset your rent to what the apartment is worth. Your landlord then has to pay you back the difference between the new rent and what you’ve paid since the problem first occurred.
Pros: Your landlord may not like this and may not renew your lease, but they can’t evict you just for suing them.
Cons: Small claims court isn’t too difficult to manage, but it isn’t simple either. Suing takes some time and effort, and you still might not get the problem fixed, so it’s best if you can tough it out where you are or have somewhere else to stay.
If the problem is bad enough that you can’t live safely live in your home while going through any of these other processes, you’re legally entitled to break your lease and leave the apartment.
Pros: If your apartment is so unsafe that you can’t live there even for a little while, then this might be your only option. You also don’t have to worry about making the owner of the property do anything, and you get out of a bad situation as quickly as possible.
Cons: You’ll need to have at least a temporary place to live that’s ready for immediate occupancy. You’re entitled to your security deposit back if you move out this way, but you may have to go to small claims court to get it.
Dealing with difficult landlords is hard, and no one wants to have to go as far as suing someone else, or withholding rent. However, if it does come to that, you can feel secure in the knowledge that there are laws designed to protect you. Knowing your rights will give you bargaining power with your landlord, and you can choose the option that makes the most sense for your situation. You deserve a safe and healthy home, and there are ways to make sure you get it.