Tenants have many options to get their landlord to make repairs or to fix problems that make their rental unit unsafe or healthy. Whether or not a lawsuit makes sense depends on several factors, including where you live (state rules vary), the seriousness of the problem, and whether you’ve jumped through the hoops your state requires before filing a lawsuit.
Here’s an overview of the basics. To get a definitive advice on your situation, or to hire representation, you’ll want to consult an attorney. One place to start your search for an experienced landlord-tenant lawyer is Nolo’s Lawyer Directory.
Preliminary Steps for Handling Repair Problems
There are several steps you can take before hiring a lawyer that may eliminate the need to sue your landlord in court.
- Find out landlord repair and maintenance responsibilities where you live. State and local housing laws entitle tenants to a safe and livable home, when it comes to basic items such as heat and hot water. The Nolo article Tenant Rights to a Livable Place describes these rules (and what’s known as the implied warranty of habitability) and where to get details for your specific situation and location.
- Determine whether your problem is a habitability problem or a minor repair issue. Landlords are legally responsible to take care of things like a leaky roof that damages your bedroom furniture when it rains; a roof leak that has caused a small stain in the bedroom ceiling would not be considered a habitability problem. Landlord responsibilities (and your options) vary for major versus minor repairs.
- Check out legal options for motivating your landlord to make repairs. Depending on where you live and the specifics of your repair or habitability problem, these options may include rent withholding, repair-and-deduct (paying to have a repair done and deducting the cost from your rent), or moving out without further liability for the rent. In these cases, there are typically steps you must take first before using a particular option, such as providing the landlord a certain amount of notice before withholding rent. See Nolo’s Sample Letter to Landlord: You Intend to Withhold Rent for an example of the type of notice to provide. In any case, be sure to put all repair requests in writing and keep copies of all correspondence and emails with your landlord (and notes of conversations). You’ll definitely need these if you end up in court.
Sue Your Landlord in Small claims Court
In every state but Arkansas (which does not recognize the implied warranty of habitability on the state level), you can sue your landlord for an uninhabitable rental unit. And you can do this whether or not you move out. (But staying only makes sense if it’s safe to do so—something that wouldn’t be the case if your roof has major leaks in studio apartment and it’s the rainy season where you live.)
Small claims court is easiest and fastest way to sue your landlord. (See Nolo’s 50 State Overview of Small Claims Rules for the basics in your state (including the dollar limit of lawsuits and whether or not you are allowed to have an attorney represent you in your state’s court); also, follow our advice on filing a security deposit lawsuit as to preparing for and presenting your case against the landlord. Before filing suit, write your landlord a demand letter stating what you want and your intent to sue if necessary.
Depending on the laws in your state, you may sue the landlord for the losses associated with the uninhabitable rental premises. These could include damaged bedding and furniture in a bedroom with a leaky roof, and/or the difference between your monthly rent and the value of the rental unit with the habitability problem, times the number of months you’ve lived with the substandard condition. Depending on the defect, you may also be able to sue your landlord for personal injuries, including pain and suffering, caused by the defective housing conditions.
Keep in mind that suing isn’t risk-free, especially if you are a month-to-month tenant or near the end of your lease and you want to stay. Your angry landlord may simply decide to terminate your rental agreement or not renew your lease. If you are covered by a state anti-retaliation law (prohibiting landlords from evicting you for exercising a legal right such as suing for habitability problems), you will have some protection, but to assert your rights you’ll have to bring another lawsuit.
If you are confident about successfully suing your landlord for a habitability problem, and your lease or rental agreement entitles you to attorney fees if you win in court, a lawyer’s help will be crucial. The Working with a Lawyer section of the Nolo website includes dozens of useful articles, including How to Find an Excellent Lawyer and the basics of attorney fees.