Tenant's Right to a Habitable Living Space
UPDATED: January 15, 2020
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When the heater breaks in your apartment, you immediately wonder, “Who is responsible for the repairs?” As a general rule, your landlord is responsible because it is their duty to provide habitable living conditions. However, even though this is the general rule in most states, exceptions may apply to your situation which could shift the duty to repair to you. Before you engage in expensive self-help remedies, contact an attorney who specializes in landlord-tenant law.
Landlord's Duty to Maintain Premises
Every lease comes with an implied warranty of habitability which requires the premises to comply with local or state housing codes. The landlord has a duty to maintain the premises in a habitable or livable condition. If a heater breaks in an apartment, your landlord is responsible for the repairs because this condition would render the apartment uninhabitable pursuant to the local and state housing codes. Unfortunately, heaters tend to break at the least convenient times, often in the dead of winter late on a Sunday evening. Even when it’s inconvenient, your landlord has a duty to repair.
Emergency and Non-Emergency Situations
In an emergency situation, such as a burst water pipe that is flooding the apartment, your landlord can enter your apartment without notice. Your rental agreement may also have additional provisions which control how you are to notify your landlord of emergency situations. Make sure that you follow these provisions. Failure to follow contractual procedures can sometimes result in a waiver, or loss, of your right to pursue certain remedies under your contract.
In a non-emergency situation, your landlord must give written notice prior to entering your apartment. The amount of advance notice required prior to entry varies from state to state, but is usually 24 hours. If you receive the notice and you then prevent your landlord from entering your apartment (by installing a new padlock, for example), you could be considered in breach of your contractual agreement which would also potentially result in a waiver of your tenant rights and remedies.
Tenant's Duty to Notify Landlord
If you know that something in your apartment is in need of repair, notify your landlord promptly. If you fail to provide notice of a leaking refrigerator within a reasonable time and the condition worsens, then you could become liable for all or part of the damages that result from water leaking from the refrigerator onto the kitchen floor. Once you provide notice to your landlord, he or she then has a reasonable time to complete the repairs. What is considered “reasonable” will be determined by your contractual agreement, the laws in your state, and the extent of repairs needed.
If your landlord fails to make repairs to render the apartment habitable within a reasonable period of time, you can either (1) move out or end your obligation to pay rent or (2) stay, stop paying rent, and defend against possible eviction. Obviously, if the conditions are so horrendous, the practical solution would be to move out and end the obligation to pay rent for the balance of the term. Your landlord may still try to collect the balance of the rent and claim that you terminated the lease prematurely. If your landlord demands or collects rent when the premises are uninhabitable, they may be liable for your monetary damages. The amount of monetary damages you can recover in this situation is limited by statute. Your second option is to stay and defend. With this option you can stay in the apartment, pay for the repairs yourself, and then deduct the cost of repairs from the rent. The risk of this option is that your landlord may try to evict you for non-payment of rent. Make sure that you keep documentation of all damages and repairs in the event of an eviction suit.
Although a broken heater is generally the responsibility of the landlord to repair, if you caused the problem, for example, by vandalism, then you could be liable for the cost of repairs. Other responsibilities or remedies may be applicable depending on your contractual agreement or the laws in your state.