Landlords must keep your rental unit in a livable condition under the implied warranty of habitability, but, this warranty will not cover many other problems you may experience with your rental unit. For example, a leaky faucet or unsightly marks on a wall are not problems that need to be fixed in order for you to live in the apartment. Also, if the damage is your fault, you will likely have to pay for the repairs.
Whether or not your landlord will be required to perform minor repairs will depend on a number of factors. One is the nature of the problem. Your landlord usually will not be required to perform purely cosmetic repairs, such as replacing a worn carpet. But, if the carpet has large holes in it that you could trip on, your landlord likely will have to replace it. Other factors that bear on whether your landlord must perform the repair include:
- Your state’s landlord-tenant laws
- State or local building codes
- Is the problem covered in the lease
- Whether your landlord has made any written or oral promises to make repairs
If your unit is uninhabitable, you are allowed to withhold rent, but if you attempted to do this for minor repairs you could be evicted. Because of this, it is harder to enforce your right to minor repairs. Below are some steps you can take that will increase the odds that your landlord will perform the repairs:
- Give your landlord a written request – by making your request in writing, you are able to spell out the problem in more detail. You also give the landlord time to think over whether or not to perform the repair because s/he does not have to respond immediately. In your written request, try to point out how the problem could become more severe.
- Propose mediation – if your landlord refuses your oral and written requests, propose that you go to a mediator to help you resolve the issue.
- Make the repairs yourself – If the repairs are minor, it might be possible to make the repairs yourself. Be sure to document the repairs you made and the expenses you incurred. Many states require that the landlord reimburse tenants who make repairs to the unit by deducting the rent.
- Report your landlord to your local building/housing agency – your minor problem may be a violation of local building codes, so you should contact your local building/housing agency to find out. If it is, report your landlord. You should note that this may not help your relationship with your landlord.
- Bring a case against your landlord in small claims court – if you are able to show that the value of your unit decreased due to the problem your landlord refused to repair, you may be able to get the difference in value and the rent you paid. Again, this will not help your relationship with your landlord, but it may be your only option.
It depends on the state you live in and the steps you took to inform to the landlord of the problem. States may differ on whether tenants have the right withhold rent and how much rent tenants may deny. Withholding rent is risky because if it’s done incorrectly, the tenant may face an eviction. You must be able to prove that you are withholding rent because you are protesting the state of the unit, not because you are unable to pay rent.
If a tenant wants to withhold rent to protest lack of repairs, the tenant should review state statutes to ensure such an option is legal. If withholding rent is permissible, the tenant should document all the repairs needed and notify the landlord about the problem. If the landlord doesn’t respond in a reasonable amount of time, find an inspector or a neutral expert to document the problems.
When the rent is due, write to the landlord that you are withholding rent to protest the lack of repairs. However, you should only withhold as much rent as repairs require. For instance, if a leaky faucet only requires $100 to fix, you should only withhold $100. If you withhold rent, you should save the rent. Put it in a trust account or a rainy day fund and document your deposit. If and when the landlord makes the repairs, you should pay the remainder of the rent immediately.
While you are not generally allowed to have a lawyer in small claims court, an experienced real estate lawyer can help you determine whether your landlord had a duty to repair the problem(s) in your unit. A lawyer with experience in real estate law can also help you file your small claims case.