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My Landlord Won’t Make Repairs: Now What?

sink in need of apartment repairs
Take these essential steps to help make sure your landlord fixes what’s broken.

When you’re a renter, even minor fixes like changing a ceiling light bulb can require a call to your landlord — you may not have a ladder to reach the light, it may require a special bulb, and you can’t call your own handyman to take care of it because of the expense. Renters have to rely on their landlords to complete these fixes. And if your landlord is MIA when you call for help, your rental “honey do” list can grow pretty long. When it comes to repairs on a property that isn’t your own, there’s a lot you need to know about how to handle the situation correctly, especially if your landlord moves slowly or refuses to make any repairs on that apartment for rent in Boston, MA.

Know your tenant rights

Tenants need to understand and memorize these magic words: implied warranty of habitability. Residential landlords generally need to “maintain their rental units in a safe, operable, and sanitary condition,” explains attorney Stanley A. Brooks, who specializes in Boston, MA, real estate law.

With that said, what makes a place unfit to live in varies from state to state, but there are some general rules of thumb. Renters usually have a right to have the following during their lease period:

  • Hot water and drinking water
  • Heat during cold weather
  • Electricity and plumbing
  • Doors and windows that lock
  • A place free from bugs, rats, and other common pests
  • Building code requirements met

But if you have a problem with your rental that makes it unlivable, it’s not a time to be greedy. This is not a windfall situation allowing you to live rent-free. You might be able to withhold rent at some point, but that is a last-resort measure — if you can do it at all.

Take action if your apartment is deemed unfit to live in

  1. Tell your landlord ASAP what the problem is and ask them to fix it. This typically works best when you have “open communication and a good relationship” with your landlord, says Brooks.
  2. Send a certified letter if you have a strained relationship with your landlord or if you don’t receive a response to your oral request. In the letter, tell the landlord what the problem is and when it started. Putting the request in writing is crucial if you need to take self-help measures later on, and “make sure you keep a copy of the letter,” says Brooks.
  3. Give your landlord a “reasonable” amount of time to fix the problem. The general rule is 30 days unless it is an emergency situation, in which case a “reasonable time” would probably be more immediate.
  4. Let your landlord or the repairman in to make the repairs. Try to be accommodating, but realize your landlord needs to give you notice before entering unless there is an emergency, like a fire or a flood.

Remember, not every repair is necessarily your landlord’s responsibility. If a pipe bursts, your landlord needs to fix that. But if the drain is backed up because you poured cooking oil from your fish fry down it, that’s on you.

The next steps

You’ve played by the rules, did not cause the problem, yet nothing was done. What now? Here’s one success story. Fair warning: consult your attorney, legal-aid organization, or tenancy advocacy organization before taking any self-help measures. Brecht Palombo, real estate broker and founder of DistressedPro, had trouble with his landlord in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood. When, after several months, his landlord wouldn’t fix the falling ceiling over his stove, Palombo stopped paying rent. Instead, he put the money in a special bank account and demanded repairs before he’d release the funds.

“Most areas have tenant support groups that know the local ordinances. They can assist tenants in following the appropriate process and in drafting communication to the landlord,” says Tim Hendricks, a Texas real estate broker. However, only certain states allow tenants to do this — and only under certain conditions. Even if your state does allow it, you might have to put the withheld rent in an escrow account to show that you’re not trying to live rent-free. If you don’t play by the rules of your jurisdiction, your landlord could evict and sue you.

Consider these other, potentially safer, options:

  1. Repair-and-deduct. Not all jurisdictions allow tenants to exercise this option, and if they do, it’s for habitability issues only — not to paint your bedroom. If you can use this self-help method, you would arrange for the problem to be fixed at your expense, which you would then deduct from the rent.
  2. Report code violationsContact your county or city government’s health or building inspector to have a look. “Be sure to get a copy of the report,” says Brooks. If a violation is found, the landlord might be ordered to repair the property.
  3. MoveYou might be able to break the lease if you have proof the property was condemned because the landlord was not willing or able to fix the problem. This measure applies only to habitability issues, and even then you must follow procedures outlined by your state’s law.

Have you dealt with a landlord who has refused to make apartment repairs? Share your tips in the comments below!