Q: I live in an apartment building where the landlord has washers and dryers in the common area for the tenants to use. Unfortunately, the machines (all of them!) are routinely broken. Can I withhold my rent? Can I deduct the cost if I have the machines repaired?
A: No, I would not suggest that you withhold rent. While allowed in some states for habitability issues within your own rental unit, I have never heard of a court upholding withholding rent for the unavailability of a common-area amenity such as a washer or dryer. That doesn’t mean that it is proper for the landlord to allow them to be in a constant state of disrepair.
I would also advise against attempting to have the machines repaired yourself and then deducting the cost from your rent unless you receive specific legal advice from a local tenant-landlord legal expert advising that this would be a good idea.
Withholding rent or attempting to use "repair and deduct" laws (if any in your area) is not something that should be done lightly, and you could find that you are in an eviction action for nonpayment of rent. While you would present a defense that you were unable to use the common-area washers and dryers due to the landlord’s failure to properly maintain them, many courts may not feel that is a justifiable reason to not pay your rent in full unless there is specific language in your lease or rental agreement assuring you that part of your tenancy includes the use of such equipment.
This is not like a refrigerator or other appliances provided by the landlord within your rental unit; these are common-area washers and dryers that are merely an amenity that the owner provides as a courtesy to the tenants.
I suggest that you send a letter signed by you and other tenants expressing your serious concern over the continued disrepair of the machines. Many times landlords are frustrated, as there may be a problem with excessive theft or vandalism. Ironically, a single break-in to coin-operated laundry equipment can result in damage of several hundred dollars while the actual loss of coins may be only a few dollars. A landlord’s frustration in these circumstances is understandable and unfortunately it is the law-abiding tenants that suffer.
In this case, try to work together to develop a solution to make the laundry equipment more secure. Even eliminating the coin-slide equipment and offering to pay a slightly higher monthly rent might be an alternative that benefits everyone. Of course, the landlords continued failure to address tenants’ concerns will lead to the best tenants leaving the property to live where their tenancy is appreciated and the landlord and tenants work together to solve problems.
Q: I have lived in an apartment for several months with no problems. Recently, the manager passed out "Tenant Rules," which delineate 22 items, and many of them are very harsh. I am totally shocked by these new rules, as many are very different from the rental agreement I originally signed. They are demanding that I sign them, including my initials at each of the 22 items. I am devastated and do not want to move. Can they do this?
A: Yes, the owner or manager has the right to change the house rules or guidelines upon proper legal notice. Most leases or rental agreements even include a clause that indicates that the landlord may make changes in the rules. A properly delivered legal notice changing the terms of your agreement would take effect at either the expiration of your current lease should you continue to live there or after 30 days if you have a month-to-month rental agreement.
Naturally, you should carefully review each "new rule" and make sure that it does not violate any law or discriminate against a protected class. For example, a rule indicating that "children may not ride bicycles on the property" would be inappropriate and may be considered a violation of federal fair-housing laws. However, a rule stating "no one may ride bicycles on the property" generally would be enforceable because it doesn’t not seek to control the behavior of anyone based on age or other protected status.
This column on issues confronting tenants and landlords is written by property manager Robert Griswold, author of "Property Management for Dummies" and co-author of "Real Estate Investing for Dummies."
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