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What Should You Do if Your Landlord Neglects Their Job?

Know your rights and your options before taking action.

5 tips to settle in a new neighborhood_blog

You’ve called, texted, and emailed your landlord to tell them your heating is broken, your toilet is leaking, and the sink is making an interminable dripdripdrip sound that’s driving you nuts.

Unfortunately, your landlord doesn’t seem to have any interest in fixing these issues.

What should you do if your landlord isn’t doing their job? Let’s look at some specific scenarios to give you an idea of your rights and options.

When time is of the essence

Example: I haven’t had any hot water in my apartment for three days. Showering is awful, and I’m having trouble getting my dishes clean — it’s so gross. What can I do?

Solution: Your landlord is obligated to repair anything deemed “essential” to the health and safety of their tenants. This includes dealing with heating, water, and electrical issues; remediation of mold or fungus; battling bug infestations; and keeping the roof in working order.

Make sure that in addition to calling, emailing, or texting, you send your repair request in writing to your landlord. This written proof could be necessary down the line if you get into a dispute with them.

Tip: Emailing and texting might not constitute “official written notice.” Your lease may specify which forms of communication qualify as “written notice,” so refer to that first and foremost. However, in the absence of any specific communication method stipulated within the lease, you should snail-mail your landlord a letter. Why? It’s the most commonly accepted legal definition of “written notice.”

Paying a little extra for registered mail is also a good idea if you’re worried your landlord is actively ignoring you, as your landlord will have to physically sign and date the receipt when they accept the envelope. Plus, you’ll have documentation to prove you sent the letter. (Save the registered mail receipt!)

In addition, keep detailed records of all important dates (when you first noticed the problem, when you left voice mails, etc.) and take plenty of pictures of the problem in question (with a date-stamp on the photos, if possible) to show the extent of the issue.

If your landlord does not respond to your request, you are within your legal rights to take any of the following steps:

  • Alerting state or local health and building inspectors
  • Suing your landlord in small claims court
  • Breaking your lease for breach of lease terms (it’s best to consult an attorney before doing this to make sure you have a solid case and haven’t failed to do anything you needed to do under the lease terms)

Should you withhold rent payment until it’s fixed? Not advisable. Your landlord might use this as grounds for eviction. It’s better to keep your situation simple.

Should you repair the problem yourself (or pay to have it repaired) and then deduct that amount from your rent? Again, that’s not advisable. You’re best off doing your job (paying rent and sending written requests) and urging your landlord to perform their job.

When your property has been damaged

Example: A pipe burst in my wall, leaking water all over the place. A ton of stuff in my closet was ruined. I called my landlord yesterday and he still hasn’t shown up. What now?

Solution: If your personal property is damaged due to negligence on the part of your landlord — e.g., they haven’t been maintaining the pipes properly, which caused the burst pipe — then you may have a case against them for reimbursement.

This is only if you’ve taken all steps within your power, including moving your property out of the way of the water (if possible) and alerting your landlord to any plumbing issues that might have signaled there was a problem.

If the pipe simply burst and it wasn’t anyone’s fault — e.g., due to an “Act of God” such as weather — your landlord is not responsible for the damage. You should always pay for renter’s insurance to cover your personal property in events such as this.

When it’s not life-threatening

Example: My kitchen sink has been dripping for the past three weeks. It’s driving us all crazy and keeping us awake at night, but my landlord doesn’t seem to care. Help!

Solution: Unfortunately, your landlord is under no specific legal obligation to make repairs that are not deemed “essential.” Nonessential or cosmetic issues are up to their discretion, including changing light bulbs, fixing leaky faucets, and patching a hole in your window screen. These things are annoying to put up with, but they don’t pose any immediate risk to your health and safety.

How can you determine whether you have the right to minor repairs? First, examine your lease or rental agreement. Some leases specifically state whether a landlord will make only essential repairs, or whether they’ll conduct nonessential repairs that you bring to their attention.

You’ll also want to consider if your repair request is the sort of thing your landlord would be concerned about from a business standpoint. Your hole-ridden window screen is something they may not care about (until they need to rent the apartment out again), but a leaky faucet could wind up boosting the water bill, which many landlords cover themselves — giving you added arguing power.

When the problem is your fault

Example: I had a party and things got a little crazy. My ceiling light fixture got knocked off and now it’s hanging by a thread. Why won’t my landlord take care of it?

Solution: A landlord is required to make only repairs necessitated by normal wear and tear or by a defect in the property (appliances not installed correctly, etc.).

If the issue is a result of damage, misuse, or negligence on your part — or on the part of any guests, children, or pets staying with you — your landlord does not have to take care of it. For instance, if your cockroach problem is a result of your failure to keep the kitchen clean, your landlord does not have to pony up the money to take care of it.

In cases like these, you’ll have to take care of the issue yourself, on your own dime, or risk having the damage deducted from your security deposit when you move out. (And try to be a little more careful in the future.)