Q: My landlord ignores my repeated requests for repairs. Can I get things fixed and take it out of the rent?
A: Yes and no. Yes, the remedy known as “repair and deduct” does exist as an option for renters living in a multitude of states. It is a last resort to consider after exhausting all other options. No, you can’t just skip paying the rent and start wielding a hammer. Like all laws, there’s a procedure to follow to avoid getting into hot water and getting scorched by landlord retaliation. Consulting with a legal resource such as an attorney, mediator or tenant organization is vital.
First, get organized by listing and photographing the offending conditions. A step by step path that may resolve the problem with your landlord is offered through various sources, including a joint project of Housing Rights Inc. and the East Bay Community Law Project in Northern California. Suggestions include putting repair requests in writing, continuing to pay the rent until the issue is settled, and calling in inspectors, if necessary.
The book “Every Tenant’s Legal Guide” lists every state in the country and their respective repair-and-deduct remedies. Some states have no statute or case law on the books, while others have detailed laws and statutes to protect renters’ rights. Further legal options and resources can be found via the Housing and Urban Development Web site at www.hud.gov/renting.
Generally, the repair-and-deduct remedy allows a tenant to deduct money from the rent — up to one month’s rent — to pay for repair of defects in the rental unit. The remedy may only be applied to serious conditions that affect the “implied warranty of habitability” or “unsafe conditions.”
What’s an implied warranty of habitability or unsafe condition? Where the law applies, landlords are required to maintain their rental units in a condition fit and safe for occupation by human beings.
For example, a place is considered downright unlivable if it lacks certain basics. “Effective waterproofing and weather protection of roof and exterior walls, including unbroken windows and doors,” is the first item on the approximately eight-item list California law defines. Other common abuses include a lack of utility hookups, such as hot and cold running water or electrical service. Naturally, unsanitary conditions ranging from rubbish to rodents is also unacceptable. Trash receptacles must be provided. Safe passage down hallways and stairs, which should be kept “in good repair,” is typically expected.
Further provisions are also defined by a combination of civil codes, health and safety codes, and case law. As a result, a cornucopia of regulations exists to protect the rental consumer, which can be delved into detail with the help of a legal resource.
There’s another side to the “habitability” situation. Damage or uninhabitable conditions cannot be a result of actions made by the tenant or anyone they are responsible for, such as family, guests or pets. Tenants are required to keep the place as clean and sanitary as the condition of the premises make possible.
Other tenant-required behavior includes using gas, electrical and plumbing fixtures properly. For example, if something is too large or inappropriate for the pipes to handle, the tenant might be held responsible. Proper maintenance, such as keeping gas burners unclogged and clean, is also expected. Disposing of trash appropriately is also important. For example, tossing leftover bread out the back door to feed birds is poor housekeeping and could invite unwanted critters.
Allowing anyone to deface or damage the premises or remove fixtures also shifts the blame from landlord to tenant, as does abusing the use of rooms. Using a bedroom as a spare kitchen (or visa versa) is dangerous and could negate a landlord’s responsibility for repairs in that situation.
In addition, some repairs may be described as the “tenant’s responsibility” in the lease. For example, some appliances are provided in “as is” condition. If the refrigerator was rented ‘as is,” don’t have a meltdown if the ice cream starts to melt and expect repairs to be on the landlord’s tab.
Finally, the remedy can usually be used only twice in a calendar year. You cannot repair and deduct if any rent was already due, even if it’s just a dollar. Watch out: If the defects you find troubling are not severe enough to warrant the deduction, you may be subject to eviction for nonpayment of rent. Once again, consulting a legal professional is crucial before using this powerful tool.