Ask a group of tenants which rental problems are most annoying and chances are you’ll hear a recitation of day-to-day but nonetheless important problems that everyone encounters now and then: leaky faucets, malfunctioning appliances, worn carpets, noisy heaters, and dozens of other frustrating breakdowns.
Unfortunately, if your landlord refuses to attend to minor repairs, you can’t withhold rent, move out, or use most of the other “big stick” legal weapons available for major repair problems. Even so, there are several proven strategies for getting results. First make sure, the problem is the landlord's responsibility, not yours.
All tenants are responsible for keeping their units in a clean, safe condition and reimbursing the landlord for damage they might cause. Many leases also prohibit tenants from making alterations or improvements without the landlord’s consent.
These rules often work in tandem. If you damage the garbage disposal by dropping a piece of silverware into it, you’ll have to pay for replacing the disposal, but you’ll need your landlord’s okay before you hire the plumber. Minor repairs that are caused by normal wear and tear, however, are the landlord’s responsibility.
There are a number of legal theories that you can use to place a minor repair responsibility on the landlord’s shoulders. Here are several.
State and local building codes mainly concern structural requirements such as roofs and flooring and essential services like hot water. If your repair problem is also a significant violation of the building code, you may be dealing with a habitability problem that can be addressed using a remedy such as rent withholding. But some codes also regulate lesser aspects of your rental, such as the number of electrical outlets. Check your state’s building code and any local ordinances to see whether your problem fits within them. If it does, you might get some results from the governmental agency that administers the codes, as described below.
Some states place the responsibility for some minor repairs directly on the landlord. Check your State Landlord-Tenant Statutes for details. Note that in many states, renters of single-family homes may agree to take on responsibilities that would belong to the landlord in a multiunit setting.
You may need to look no further than your own lease or rental agreement to find that the landlord has, perhaps unwittingly, promised to fix your problem. Even a simple list of the amenities that come with the rental—such as a dishwasher, sauna, or washing machine—constitutes an implied promise that the landlord will provide them in a workable condition.
If an advertisement for your unit described or listed a feature, such as a swimming pool, that significantly affected your decision to move into the particular rental unit, you have the right to hold the landlord to these promises—as long as a breakdown is not your fault. The promise doesn’t have to be in words—a glossy photo showing a pool constitutes an obligation that the landlord will provide one (and keep it up). And the promise may be oral, made during rental negotiations. (“You’ll love our four-court tennis area!”) The landlord who turns the tennis court into a parking lot will do so at some expense if his tenants are savvy—read on.
Finally, you may be faced with a minor repair problem that doesn’t fit within any of the above ways to nail the landlord: no code or law violation, no promise to fix it in the lease, no promise in an ad or during an enthusiastic prerental tour. Still, something was working or in good repair when you moved in and has since deteriorated. What’s your theory now?
It’s rather simple: You are entitled to get what you pay for. Many courts will hold a landlord legally responsible for maintaining all significant aspects of your rental unit. If you rent a unit that already has certain features—light fixtures that work, doors that open and close smoothly, faucets that don’t leak, tile that doesn’t fall off the wall—many judges reason that the landlord has made an implied contract to keep them in workable order throughout your tenancy.
Another way to show that your landlord has made an implied promise to attend to this repair is his past conduct. If your landlord has consistently fixed or maintained a particular feature of your rental, she has made an implied promise to continue doing so. For example, if she’s regularly fixed the finicky timer on the hot tub but suddenly decides that she’s had enough, you may point to her past efforts as establishing a promise to continue to fix the tub.
By now you should have a good idea as to whether your landlord is legally responsible for fixing the minor problem that is bedeviling you. Your next job is to get the landlord to do it. First, try for some cooperation.
Chances are your oral pleas have been met with delays or refusals. Now it’s time to write a request, keeping in mind your landlord’s guiding lights: making money, avoiding tenant hassles, and staying out of legal hot water. An appeal designed to further his concerns is likely to succeed.
If possible, write your letter using one or more of the following approaches:
Often, even the most stingy and dense landlord will spring to action when he sees that the results of not taking care of business could be worse than dealing with your request now.
Use the Sample Request for Repairs letter as a model in preparing your request for minor repairs.
If your written appeal doesn't work, you have a few options, such as reporting your landlord for a building code violation (if any) or suing in small claims court, But before taking a more confrontational approach, consider the consequences. If you have a month-to-month tenancy, in most states your landlord can terminate your tenancy with just 30 days’ notice, without having to give a reason. And if your lease is about to expire and you’d like a renewal, the landlord can likewise simply decline to offer it (absent rent control restrictions). The ease with which your landlord can get rid of you means you should think twice before trying one of the adversarial strategies discussed below over minor problems with your rental.
An antiretaliation law, if one is in force where you live, may protect you from a termination or nonrenewal. But if you have to go to court to argue about it, spending precious time away from work or your free time, you may end up wishing you’d never complained about that cracked mirror.
If the problem you want fixed constitutes a code violation, such as low water pressure, you might find an ally in the building or housing agency in charge of enforcing the code. Whether you’ll get any action out of the agency will depend on the seriousness of the violation, the workload of the agency, and its ability to enforce its compliance orders. Since by definition your problem is minor, don’t expect lots of help if code enforcement officials are already overworked.
If you can reasonably argue that you aren’t getting what you paid for, you might decide to sue in small claims court. But before you do, write a demand letter stating what you want and that you intend to sue if necessary. Write a second letter if you don’t get results.
If the second letter doesn’t do the trick, it’s time to head for the small claims court clerk’s office. We know of one tenant who successfully sued her landlord for failing to repair a dishwasher that was functioning when she moved in. In her lawsuit, she calculated how much time she spent hand-washing the dishes each day, multiplied that figure times the number of days she had been without the dishwasher, and multiplied that figure by her state’s minimum wage. She won.
Whatever you do, don't withhold rent for a minor repair problem. If you do, you invite an eviction lawsuit. (The only time to withhold rent is following a statutory rent withholding process.) Instead, ask for a retroactive rent abatement (or reduction) in your lawsuit which, if granted, will accomplish the same thing without the risk of an eviction lawsuit