When you find a problem in your rental unit, you should decide how significant it is. Does the problem make it virtually impossible to live in your home, or is it more of an inconvenience? Distinguishing between major and minor repairs will help you determine what you can do if your landlord refuses to fix a problem. For example, you cannot withhold rent based on a minor issue that goes unaddressed. If you do, the landlord would be able to evict you based on your nonpayment of rent.
Some examples of minor repairs include plumbing issues, repairing light fixtures, replacing flooring that is worn out, or changing your heating filters. Cost alone is not the determining factor. If your heating breaks down during a cold winter, it might not cost a huge sum to fix the heater. However, this would be a major repair because it makes the apartment unlivable.
Obligations of the Landlord
Unless you caused the problem, or it is just part of normal wear and tear, the landlord probably is responsible for fixing it. The problem may be a violation of a building code that specifically addresses the issue, such as an electrical outlet that breaks down. In other instances, the state or local government may have explicitly required the landlord to address a certain type of issue.
If no building code or other law directly applies, you should check your lease or rental agreement to see whether it addresses or describes the item that has broken down. If it is covered in the lease or an advertisement for the unit, the landlord probably will be held implicitly responsible for fixing the problem. (Providing a certain feature or amenity equates to ensuring that it is maintained in proper condition.) Also, a landlord will be considered to have assumed the responsibility to make certain repairs if they have consistently made these types of repairs in the past.
Promises by Landlords
If a landlord made certain promises about maintenance to you before you moved in, you may be able to hold the landlord accountable for breaking these promises. However, you should try to put these promises in writing so that they are easier to enforce. You can still try to enforce an oral promise if needed, but it is more difficult unless there were witnesses.
Some courts will require a landlord to honor what they consider to be an “implied promise” to keep all of the main features of your apartment in a functional condition, whether or not the landlord actually guaranteed this. However, if you signed a lease for an apartment in which a certain feature was not working at the time, you may not be able to argue that there was an implied promise to fix it if the landlord never discussed it with you.
Obligations of the Tenant
Tenants generally are required to fix or cover the cost of fixing any defects in their unit that they cause. You probably also cannot make alterations or repairs without getting your landlord’s permission. Sometimes a landlord will transfer other maintenance responsibilities to a tenant through a provision in the lease, which will generally be enforceable as long as the maintenance is non-essential. Most states require landlords to retain responsibility for the maintenance of essential features.
If your landlord offers you the option to pay less rent or have an amenity installed in exchange for helping with maintenance, you may want to sign an employment agreement with the landlord that is separate from your lease. Separating these agreements protects you from being evicted if the maintenance arrangement falls through, since it cannot be considered a violation of your lease. To make sure that you are compensated fairly, you may want to investigate how much these tasks would cost the landlord if they hired a third party to perform them.
How to Get Your Landlord to Make Minor Repairs
A good first step is to try to persuade the landlord that making the repairs is a smart business decision for them. If the hazard could cause an accident or undermine your safety, they may be motivated to fix it to avoid liability in a personal injury claim later. If the problem affects many tenants, rather than just you, the landlord may be especially eager to take action to prevent multiple lawsuits. You can also propose mediation as a way to resolve the issue in a non-confrontational way.
If these tactics fail, you may be able to sue the landlord in small claims court. While a judge in small claims court cannot order your landlord to make the repairs, they can reduce your rent to reflect the value of the unit without the repairs. This strategy is more likely to succeed if you have a lease rather than a short-term rental agreement.
When a defective condition violates a building code, you can report your landlord to the agency that enforces the code. You should be aware that enforcement may not be prompt or vigorous if the agency has a substantial workload, since the problem is minor.
Making Your Own Repairs
This may seem like a simple solution, but you should carefully assess your ability to make the repairs before proceeding. A landlord’s insurance policy will not cover any injuries or property damage that a tenant causes while making repairs, so any mistakes could be expensive. You also need to find out whether your lease permits you to make the repairs without the landlord’s consent. Many leases have a clause prohibiting tenants from making repairs, alterations, or improvements, which means that the landlord retains control over repairs unless you can convince them otherwise. You should put your repair proposal in writing and notify the landlord that you will proceed if they do not respond by a certain date. This will give you a record of their consent if something goes wrong.