Renters' Rights to Minor Repairs

How to get landlords to keep their end of the maintenance bargain.

Your landlord is responsible for keeping your rental unit in a livable condition, though many renters often feel stuck with less-than-ideal living conditions. Maybe the drip, drip, drip of your leaking bathroom faucet is driving you insane, there's an unsightly stain in your living room carpet, or the paint in your kitchen has gone from crisp white to the dingy yellow of spoiled milk. These aren't huge problems and don't justify a move, but you don't just have to live with them, right?

Landlords Must Fix Major Problems

Your landlord must keep the structure of the building sound, including stairways, floors, and roofs; keep electrical, heating, and plumbing systems operating safely; supply hot and cold water in reasonable amounts; and exterminate infestations of pests such as cockroaches. If your landlord fails to address a major problem, tenants in many states have options such as withholding the rent.

Keep in mind, however, that if a problem is the result of your own carelessness—such as a pest infestation caused by your poor housekeeping—your landlord has the right to charge you for the repair or take the cost of repair out of your security deposit.

Landlords Might Have to Make Minor Repairs

What about the annoying problems most tenants face, like leaky faucets, old paint, torn screens, or worn flooring? While these types of problems can be unpleasant or inconvenient, they don't make the unit uninhabitable. Does the landlord have to repair them?

Whether your landlord must take care of a minor repair depends upon a number of factors, beginning with the nature of the problem. Purely cosmetic repairs are not legally required. Mildewed grout or worn carpet, for example, are less likely to require a landlord's attention than are loose tiles that make the shower unusable or holes in carpeting that could trip someone.

If you're not sure whether your landlord is legally required to make a repair, check to see any of the following address your specific problem:

  • the terms of your lease
  • any oral or written promises your landlord has made
  • state and local building codes, or
  • state landlord-tenant laws.

How to Get Your Landlord to Make Minor Repairs

It's often harder to enforce your rights to minor repairs than major ones. Tenants in an uninhabitable dwelling are often allowed by law to withhold rent or use "repair and deduct" procedures, but taking those actions for minor problems could get you evicted. There are, however, a number of proven strategies for getting landlords to take care of minor problems.

1. Write a repair request.

Even if you've already asked your landlord to take care of a problem, a written request is almost always helpful. It gives you a chance to articulate the problem clearly and point out why it's in the landlord's best interest to fix it. A letter also allows a reluctant landlord to think it over without having to give you an immediate answer (which often results in a knee-jerk "no").

Try to develop a number of themes in your letter. One effective tactic is to explain that the problem might become worse—and more costly to the landlord—if it's not taken care of right away. A landlord might find it easy to ignore your drippy faucet until you point out the possibility of an overflowing sink causing water damage to the floors.

Another theme that will grab your landlord's attention is the potential for injury. A hole in the stairway carpeting could cause someone to trip and fall, making the landlord liable for the injury. Other potential concerns that will get your landlord's attention include security issues (such as a broken lock) and problems that could result in another tenant's complaining (such as a door that slams shut loudly immediately after it's opened).

2. Propose mediation.

If your oral and written requests are ignored, consider contacting a mediation service, which will invite the landlord to meet with you and a trained mediator. The mediator will help the two of you reach a mutually-acceptable solution, but will not (unlike a judge) impose a solution. Many communities offer free or low-cost mediation services as an alternative to going to court.

3. Report your landlord to your local building or housing agency.

Some minor problems might violate local building or housing codes. Call the agency that enforces these codes in your area to find out. Officials at the agency should be able to explain whether your problem violates local or state codes, and might be able to take action against your landlord.

Keep in mind that reporting your landlord won't likely improve your relationship, which might be important to you if you want to stay in your unit for some time. Even state "antiretaliation" laws, which prohibit rent hikes, terminations, or other adverse actions following a tenant's complaint to a government agency or exercise of a legal right, can't prevent a sour relationship.

4. Sue your landlord in small claims court.

If you can prove in court that the unaddressed problems decrease the value of your unit, a judge can award you the difference between what you've been paying in rent and the amount the unit is actually worth. Obviously, suing your landlord is not your best option if you want to salvage your landlord-tenant relationship. But if you've tried everything else and moving elsewhere is not feasible, taking your landlord to small claims court might be the right remedy.

For legal and practical information to help you deal with your landlord, see Every Tenant's Legal Guide, by Janet Portman and Marcia Stewart (Nolo).

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