Tenant Rights to a Livable Place

Landlords must provide tenants with a safe and livable rental home.

Almost every state’s laws entitle tenants to a safe and livable housing, regard­less of how much rent the tenant pays. Livable housing means that the rental meets basic requirements, such as having a roof that keeps out rain and snow, sufficient hot water, reliable heat, and sturdy floors and walls that aren’t in danger of imminent collapse. Rental housing must also be free from significant danger from lead, asbestos, and mold, and must have reasonable protection from criminal intrusion.

The technical legal term for a tenant’s right to a livable rental is the “implied warranty of habit­ability.” The term comes from the idea that landlords promise tenants a livable place simply by offering the property for rent—the promise does not have to be written in a lease or otherwise formally agreed upon. Courts began recognizing the implied warranty of habitability in the early 1970s, and now all states but one state (Arkansas) have embraced it, either by decision from their highest court or by statute. (And, even in Arkansas, some cities and counties have enacted ordinances that come close to establishing the same standards.)

The Implied Warranty of Habitability

So what does it mean to say that landlords must provide habitable rentals? Some laws lay out specific requirements, while others leave it up to interpretation. In most places, landlords meet their obligation by:

  • keeping basic structural elements of the building, including floors, stairs, walls, and roofs, safe and intact
  • maintaining all common areas, such as hallways and stairways, in a safe and clean condition
  • keeping electrical, plumbing, sanitary, heating, ventilating, and air-conditioning systems and elevators operating safely
  • supplying cold and hot water and heat in reasonable amounts at reasonable times
  • keeping known environmental hazards such as lead paint dust and asbestos from posing a significant danger
  • taking reasonable measures to prevent foreseeable criminal intrusions, and
  • exterminating rodents and other vermin (such as bed bugs).

In almost all circumstances, the implied warranty of habitability persists even when parties try to circumvent it. In other words, landlords cannot shrug off these responsibilities in a “disclaimer” when the tenancy begins. Similarly, courts won’t uphold any agreements between landlords and tenants to waive the warranty (when a landlord offers lower rent in exchange for a tenant’s waiver, for example).

How Do You Know When a Landlord Has Breached the Implied Warranty of Habitability?

When a landlord fails to perform the fundamental services and maintenance needed to fulfill the implied warranty of habitability, major problems arise—any reasonable tenant would be concerned for their health or safety. Put another way, no reasonable tenant would freely choose to live in a place that doesn’t meet basic habitability requirements.

On the other hand, minor damage and repair needs do not constitute a breach of the implied warranty of habitability. A minor repair can be annoying, limiting, or distasteful (and it can even be expensive to remedy)—but it doesn’t seriously endanger the health or safety of a reasonable tenant or make a rental uninhabitable. For example, if the only thing between a tenant and a heated apartment is a $50 furnace part, the repair is “major,” because an unheated home is unlivable. On the other hand, replacing an ugly but otherwise safe carpet might cost thousands, but it is a “minor” repair, because floor coverings that are merely shabby do not make your home unfit.

Often the line between major and minor isn’t clear. To better place a problem in the right category, look at the source of the implied warranty—a state statute, a local ordinance, or, in some states, a court decision. Some of these laws might contain specific guidelines (such as a minimum hot water temperature) that must be met under the implied warranty.

The chart below gives more examples of major versus minor repair problems.

Tenant Options When a Landlord Fails to Make Major RepairsWhen landlords refuse to provide livable housing that meets minimum requirements, tenants can take action to enforce the implied warranty of habitability. Although state laws vary, many allow tenants to:

  • withhold rent
  • pay for repairs themselves and deduct the cost from their rent
  • sue the landlord, or
  • move out without notice (break the lease) and without liability for future rent.

Before taking these drastic measures, be sure to research the applicable laws where you rent. You will also need to make sure that your landlord is aware of the problem—writing your landlord a letter about your concerns is a good idea. If you have any questions, consider contacting a local landlord-tenant attorney for assistance.To learn more about tenant rights, see Nolo's book, Renters' Rights.

Classifying Your Repair Problem

It is essential that you correctly classify your repair problem—major or minor—before claiming that your landlord has breached the implied warranty of habitability. Many of the legal steps you can take to force a landlord to deal with a major repair will not work for a minor repair and can land you in legal hot water if used improperly.

Following are some concrete examples of the two types of problems. The test for every repair problem is: Does this make my rental unfit to live in? If so, it’s major; if not, it’s minor.

Major Repair

Minor Repair

A roof leak that results in a wall of mildew in the bedroom

A roof leak that has caused a slight stain in the ceiling plaster in the hallway

A totally broken hot water heater

A hot water heater that heats to five degrees less than the temperature required by state statute

A furnace that won’t turn on

A furnace that clanks and creaks when the fan runs

A front door that will not lock

A screen door (in front of a door that locks) with a broken latch

A toilet that won’t flush in a one-bathroom rental

A toilet that flushes poorly in a two-bath unit

A lobby that is filled with tenants’ garbage because the landlord has failed to provide trash bins and has not arranged for pick-up

A lobby that’s in need of a good vacuuming and paint job

A broken heater during the winter

A broken heater in the summer during a warm spell

An apartment rented to a family with young children where there is deteriorating lead paint

An apartment with faded and dirty latex paint

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