Options for Tenants When the Landlord Refuses to Make Major Repairs

Tenant "big stick" remedies if your landlord won't handle serious habitability problems

Updated by , Attorney · UC Berkeley School of Law

Renters have a right to a livable place. This doesn't mean the rental has to be perfect—but it does mean that tenants have a right to demand that their landlord maintain the rental and repair major defects.

If, despite your written requests, your landlord refuses to make repairs, it might be time to take stronger measures. Depending on the landlord repair law where you live, your options might include one or more of the following:

  • calling state or local building or health inspectors

  • withholding the rent

  • repairing the problem, or having it repaired by a professional, and deducting the cost from your rent (called "repair-and-deduct")

  • moving out, or 

  • paying the rent and then suing the landlord for the difference between the rent you paid and the value of the defective premises.

What to Do When Your Landlord Doesn't Make Repairs

Before you withhold rent, move out, or adopt another extreme remedy, though, make sure every one of these conditions is met: 

  • It's a major repair or habitability problem. The problem must be serious, not just annoying, and must imperil your health or safety. Not every building code violation or annoying defect in your rental home rises to this level. Do your homework about the differences between major and minor repairs.
  • It's not your fault. If you (or a guest) caused the problem, either deliberately or through carelessness or neglect, you can't pursue big stick options.

  • You followed state rules regarding notifying the landlord. You told the landlord about the problem and gave them a reasonable opportunity—or the minimum amount of notice required by state law—to get it fixed. You'll need to check your state's law for the exact notification requirements for the specific option you are pursuing.
You can't use big stick options without taking these first steps.
  • You're paid up in rent. Under most rent withholding laws you can't withhold rent if you owe rent or are in violation of an important lease clause. 

  • You're willing to risk termination of your tenancy by an annoyed landlord. Exercising any of the rights discussed here won't endear you to your landlord. Many state laws forbid landlord retaliation against tenants, but, unfortunately, some states don't. If your lease is about to run out (or you're a month-to-month tenant) and your state doesn't protect you from retaliatory rent increases or evictions, a complaint to health inspectors or the use of a big stick could end up causing you to lose your rental.
  • You're willing to risk eviction if a judge decides that you shouldn't have used the big stick, and your credit report can bear this negative mark. Even if you're sure that you were justified in using a big stick, a judge might decide otherwise. For example, if you withhold rent, the landlord might file an eviction suit based on nonpayment of rent. In most states and in most situations, you'll have a second chance to pay the balance before being evicted, but not always. For some tenants, additional negative marks on their credit records will cause extremely serious problems not only for future rentals but for loans and employment as well.

  • You can find a comparable or better place to live if you move out. If you report your landlord's code violation, it's possible that you'll have to move out while repairs are made. In some states, landlords whose buildings are closed due to code violations must help their tenants with relocation expenses, but you shouldn't count on getting any assistance from your landlord. 

Possible Options When Your Landlord Doesn't Make Major Repairs

Once you've established that your rental needs major repairs, and you've done everything you can to get your landlord to fix things (see above), you might be able to take one of the following steps. Be sure to check your state's law to make sure these are legal options in your state, and consider discussing your situation with a local attorney before you act.

Report Code Violations to Housing Inspectors

If the problem you're facing is a violation of a state or local housing law, you can contact the agency in charge of enforcing the law. Depending on your area, the agency might be a housing or building agency or a health or fire department.

An inspector will investigate and give the landlord a notice of violation and a deadline, typically 30 to 60 days, to correct the problem. The deadline might be shorter for extremely serious violations—and in some cases, health fire, or building inspectors might actually close your building on very short notice.

A landlord's failure to abide by the correction order might result in fines and even imprisonment. Keep in mind that due to varying workloads and local budgets, there is wild variation across locales in the quality of response and results you might see when you report a code violation.

Withhold the Rent

If your landlord hasn't met the responsibility of keeping your unit livable, but you've met the requirements described above, you might be able to stop paying any rent to the landlord until the repairs are made. This is called rent withholding.

Many states allow rent withholding as a self-help measure, either by statute or court decision. Most laws allowing rent withholding have very specific requirements for withholding rent—for example, you must typically give your landlord a certain amount of time to fix the problem, and the law might require you to put your rent in a special escrow account.

Make Repairs and Deduct the Cost From Rent ("Repair-and-Deduct") 

Depending on where you live, you might be eligible to use another powerful legal remedy called "repair-and-deduct." Over half the states and some large cities allow the repair-and-deduct option. If your state doesn't allow repair-and-deduct, check your local housing ordinances to determine whether your city has independently adopted it. If your state or city doesn't have a repair-and-deduct statute, this procedure is not available to you.

How Repair-and-Deduct Works

It works like this: When you've tried and failed to get the landlord to fix a serious defect, you can hire a repair person to do the work, or fix the defect yourself, and subtract the cost from the following month's rent.

Your state or local law will usually specify the:

  • circumstances justifying your use of the remedy (usually only habitability problems can be addressed with repair-and-deduct)

  • limit on the amount you can deduct from rent (such as one month's rent), and

  • frequency with which you can use the remedy (once in an 18-month period, for example).

The repair-and-deduct remedy is a poor choice when it comes to big-ticket projects such as a major roof repair. Obviously, if you're limited to a twice-a-year expenditure of half your monthly rent, you are not going to be able to pay for a $20,000 roof job. However, a number of tenants might be able to pool their dollar limits to accomplish a costly repair.

Move Out

If your dwelling isn't habitable and hasn't been made so despite your complaints and repair requests, you might have the right to move out—either temporarily or permanently. You might have the right to move out even when the landlord has tried but failed to remedy the problem. For example, if your landlord has repeatedly tried to remove bed bugs from the building, but hasn't succeeded, you are probably entitled to move out.

Moving out (like most other remedies) is justified only when there are truly serious problems, such as the lack of essential services, total or partial destruction of the premises, or the presence of environmental health hazards such as asbestos or lead paint dust.

If you have time remaining on a lease and move out without legal justification (for an insignificant problem, for example), you risk losing your security deposit and being sued for the remainder of the rent due under the lease. Therefore, check your state law for details, including your landlord's responsibility to rerent if you break a lease.

Before moving out, be sure to check specific requirements under your state law, including:

  • whether you must first call in a building inspectors or otherwise report a code violation
  • how much time you must give your landlord to fix the problem, and

  • the amount of notice, if any, you must provide before moving out.

A temporary move might be your best option. Paying for temporary lodging while the problem is fixed is cheaper for the landlord in the long run for the landlord, as opposed to losing a rent-paying tenant and rerenting a substandard place.

Some states' laws require landlords to pay for temporary housing while court-ordered repairs are made, typically when lead paint problems are being remedied.

Sue the Landlord

In almost every state, if your rental isn't habitable you can sue the landlord—even if you decide to remain in the rental. You can probably use small claims court, which allows claims of up to several thousand dollars. You won't need to hire a lawyer.

Suing the landlord makes sense only if you can safely continue to live in your rental. For example, if the roof leaks only into the second bedroom and you can move the kids into the living room for a while, you might want to stay and sue in order to avoid the hassle of moving, arranging for the repair yourself (repair-and-deduct), or figuring out the complications of rent withholding. But you wouldn't want to stay and sue if you are without heat in the winter or in danger of electrocution every time you turn on the lights. 

In your lawsuit, you ask the judge to rule that your unrepaired rental wasn't worth what you've paid for it. You want to be paid the differ­ence between the monthly rent and the real value of the unit, times the number of months that you've lived with the substandard conditions. In short, you'll ask for a retroactive rent decrease—rent "abatement" in legalese. In addition, you can sue your landlord for lost or damaged property (for example, furniture ruined by water leaking through the roof).

In some states, you may also ask the court for an order directing the landlord to repair the defects, with rent reduced until they are fixed. In others, small claims courts can only order the landlord to pay you for your losses. The good news is that most of the time, when a landlord is hit with a money judgment for failing to make repairs, the landlord will finally make the repairs to avoid future lawsuits.

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