Under most state and local laws, landlords must offer and maintain housing that satisfies basic habitability requirements, such as adequate weatherproofing, available heat, water, and electricity, and clean, sanitary, and structurally safe premises.
Local building or housing codes typically set specific standards, such as the minimum requirements for light, ventilation, and electrical wiring. Many cities require the installation of smoke detectors in residential units and specify security measures involving locks and keys. Your local building or housing authority and health or fire department, can provide information on local housing codes and penalties for violations.
Tenants have the responsibility to keep their own living quarters clean and sanitary. If you do not, you can't go to the landlord and request repairs that are due to your negligence, such as infestations of pests such as ants. In that case, the landlord could have the work done and send the repair bill to you.
When the landlord is responsible for making certain repairs, the landlord can usually delegate the repair tasks to the tenant in exchange for a reduction in rent (if the tenant agrees). If the tenant fails to do the job well, however, the landlord is not excused from his responsibility to maintain the property in a habitable condition. To learn more about the landlord's responsibility for keeping the unit in good repair, see Nolo's article Renters' Right to Minor Repairs. To learn more about your rights as a tenant, see Nolo's Renters' Rights & Tenants' Rights section.
If a tenant requests repairs and the landlord or property manager doesn't meet the habitability requirements, a tenant usually has several options, depending on the state. These options include:
A tenant can also sue the landlord for a partial refund of past rent, and in some circumstances can sue for the discomfort, annoyance, and emotional distress caused by the substandard conditions. (To learn more about what tenants can do to get landlords to perform repairs, see Nolo's article Renters' Rights to Minor Repairs.)
Your best bet is to handle repairs as soon as possible (or delegate the repairs to the tenant in exchange for decreased rent). Take care of major problems, such as a plumbing or heating problem, within 24 hours. For minor problems, respond in 48 hours. Always keep tenants informed as to when and how the repairs will be made, and the reasons for any delays.
To learn more about tenants' rights to privacy and repairs, see Every Tenant's Legal Guide, by Janet Portman and Marcia Stewart (Nolo).
Landlords can enter rented premises only in the following circumstances:
Several states also allow landlords or property managers the right of entry during a tenant's extended absence (often defined as seven days or more) to maintain the property as necessary and to inspect for damage and needed repairs. In most cases, a landlord may not enter just to check up on the tenant and the rental property.
States that regulate landlords' access require landlords to provide advance notice (usually 24 hours) before entering a rental unit. (See Nolo's Chart: Notice Requirements to Enter Rental Property, State by State.) In most states, without advance notice, a landlord or manager may enter rented premises while a tenant is living there only in an emergency -- such as a fire or serious water leak -- or when the tenant gives permission.