It's not uncommon for landlord and tenants to have disputes periodically about things like an unsafe condition on the premises, like rotten wood in the stairwell, or some other needed repair, like a furnace that won't maintain a comfortable and stable temperature in the winter.
Quite often, you're able to settle matters and the landlord agrees to and in fact fixes the problem. But what if he or she fails or refuses to fix it? Your lease probably spells out both your and your landlord's rights and responsibilities, and particularly those regarding repairs and maintenance. And, the landlord-tenant laws in your area probably set out in detail who's responsible for what and the tenants' remedies in disputes with landlords over such matters.
So, if you have a disagreement with your landlord, read over your lease, and be sure to check the laws in your area to be certain that your rights (and your wallet) are protected. If you have any questions or are uncertain about how to protect yourself, you should contact an attorney with experience in real estate law.
Condition of Premises
In most states, when a landlord rents you property, the property comes with a warranty of habitability, that is, the landlord has the obligation and responsibility to keep the premises in a safe, sanitary, and livable condition. Generally, the landlord must do things like:
Keep the premises structurally sound by, for instance, repairing any holes in the roofs or floors
Providing adequate power (like electric and gas), hot water, and heat
Keep premises free from pests and rodents
If the landlord refuses to make such a repair so that your space is unlivable or "uninhabitable," then you have various remedies depending on the laws in your state. Generally, however, the remedies include things like:
Refusing to pay rent until the landlord fixes the problem
Giving the landlord notice of the problem and then terminating or ending the lease if the problem isn't fixed in a certain period of time, such as 14 days
Taking a "rent abatement," or a reduction in rent, which would be the amount equal to the difference in value between the premises without the problem and the value of the premises with the problem
In the case of minor repairs, like small leaks in water pipes or dripping faucets, most state laws allow you to pay to have the repair made and then deduct the amount from your rent ("repair and deduct"). Many landlord-tenant laws place limits on this remedy, such as:
- You can only deduct up to a certain amount, such as set dollar amount, like $500, or an amount "no greater than one month's rent," and/or
- You can only "rent and deduct" a certain number of times per year, which is usually set at two times per year
Use or Enjoyment of the Premises
When a landlord rents to you, you pay rent in exchange for the exclusive right to use and enjoy the premises without interference by the landlord, called the "covenant of quiet enjoyment." You have the right to peace and quiet and to exclude all others from the premises, that is, if you don't want someone in your apartment, even the landlord to an extent, you don't have to let them in.
That does not mean that the landlord has to leave you alone at all times and for all purposes. In almost all landlord-tenant laws, landlords have the right to enter your premises to make necessary repairs or perform maintenance, so long as you are given advance notice. Usually, a landlord can enter your premises without your permission only if there's an emergency, like a fire.
Your right to quiet enjoyment is very similar to the warranty of habitability. For example, the landlord's failure to provide adequate hot water could make it hard for you to use and enjoy the premises. Other examples of when a landlord violates your right to quiet enjoyment include:
- Renting your premises to another person without your consent or permission, such as when you're away for some time on vacation or on business
- Allowing another tenant's dog to remain on the premises over your complaints that it barks all night
- Continuously showing up at your premises without warning or advance notice just to "check on the premises"
Usually, the remedy for the landlord's interference with your use and enjoyment is to file a lawsuit for money damages. In some states, however, you have the right to stop paying rent or reducing your rent until the landlord resolves the problem.
Defense to Eviction
If either the landlord's interference with your right to quiet enjoyment or his or her failure to repair or maintain the premises makes the premises uninhabitable, and you stop paying rent, the landlord might begin eviction proceedings to have you removed from the premises and to force you to pay the rent. As a defense to such an action, you might be able to argue that the landlord's conduct relieved you of the obligation to pay rent. Of course, to make this defense effective, you'll have to make sure that you give the landlord notice of the problems and time to fix them before you stop paying rent and/or leave the premises.
Questions for Your Attorney
My landlord has tried 3 times to fix the furnace but it still doesn't keep my apartment warm enough. Can I pay to have a whole new heating system installed and deduct the cost from my rent? Does the cost of the repair matter?
When I moved into my apartment building none of the tenants smoked, and the landlord said that he preferred to rent to non-smokers. Recently, a new tenant moved in and he smokes. The smoke irritates my asthma. I've complained to the landlord, but she won't do anything. Is there anything I can do?
I'm not happy with the way my landlord keeps the laundry room in the basement. It's full of his boxes, and I've seen mice running through the rooms. I've complained, and so have other tenants, but nothing has been done. I suggested that we all stop paying rent until he calls an exterminator. Another tenant told me that we can't do that. Is that true?
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