What if my landlord refuses to make repairs?
The beauty of living in a rental is that you don’t have to fix everything that breaks. Rather than spending hours watching YouTube tutorials to figure out how to fix the hot water in your shower, you just call your landlord for apartment repairs and it’s taken care of. Right?
We hope so. Because that rental life blessing—it’s not your problem—is also the rental life curse. While you may not be responsible for making certain repairs, you still have to live with whatever’s broken until it’s fixed. And if your landlord refuses to make repairs? At best, it’s annoying, and at worst (if there’s a structural issue, or your heater is malfunctioning in the dead of winter), it could mean your apartment is straight up unsafe.
Let’s take a closer look at the things that are technically your landlord’s responsibility, how to report a landlord if they won’t take care of them, and your options if you’re experiencing landlord problems.
What apartment repairs is my landlord required to do?
Your landlord is obligated to keep your building and unit habitable. That covers everything from ensuring the heating, electrical, and plumbing systems are in working order, to making sure the building is structurally sound. So if your landlord won’t fix the heat, that’s a definite problem that may require you reporting them.Pest problems and other apartment health code violations are also generally the landlord’s responsibility, unless an infestation is clearly your fault. So yes, the fruit fly convention happening around that pile of dirty dishes in the sink is still on you.
Legally, your landlord doesn’t have to make minor apartment repairs (unless your lease stipulates otherwise), so even as a renter, you may find yourself doing battle with a leaky faucet or replacing a broken toilet lift chain. Check with your landlord or write a letter to your landlord for repairs before fixing anything yourself, just to be sure—they may want to make minor repairs (sometimes in exchange for a tip), to ensure things are done properly and don’t cause issues down the line.
Typically, it’s a good idea to talk to your landlord about tenant rights and responsibilities before signing a lease.
Who do you call when your landlord won’t fix things?
Some landlords go above and beyond, helping to fix things that are technically your responsibility, while others go MIA the second you call to tell them that your heater conked out. If you’re unlucky enough to have a landlord who refuses to make repairs and dodges your calls, there are a few things you can do.
Write a letter to your landlord for repairs
First, make sure there’s a written record of your repair request. Check your lease to see whether there are any requirements for sending written letters to your landlord or management company for repairs. If the lease doesn’t contain specific instructions, send the landlord or manager a letter by certified mail—this helps to ensure you’ll have proof that the letter was received—and make sure you keep a copy of the letter for your records. You should also take clear, dated photos of the conditions at issue and keep them in a safe place in case future landlord problems arise.
How long does a landlord have to make repairs?
If the landlord still refuses to make repairs in a reasonable amount of time, you may need to escalate things. (Note: What’s “reasonable” can vary depending on the repair in question, and whether or not the situation is an emergency.)
When you find yourself in that position, your best bet is to consult with a lawyer or tenant advocacy group on how to report your landlord, as housing regulations vary by state and even by city. Before you take action, you’ll want to make sure that the repair in question is actually the landlord’s legal responsibility. The conditions at issue need to impact the habitability of your home, and can’t have been something that you caused—whether by your own actions, or your own neglect.
While it might generally be the landlord’s responsibility to take care of a mold infestation, if the mold started growing because you overflowed your kitchen sink and failed to properly dry out the cabinet beneath it, you won’t have much of a case against the landlord.
How to report a landlord
You also want to ensure you’re doing things by the letter of the law if reporting landlord problems. When you escalate the situation, your landlord may try to evict you or take you to court—even if you’re in the right—so you need to protect yourself by doing everything correctly.
In general, if you write a letter to your landlord for repairs that they’re legally required to make and they fail to respond, your options include:
- Contacting local housing authorities. If you believe the landlord’s failure to make a repair is an apartment building health or code violation—maybe there’s a structural issue, or a serious mold problem—you can contact governmental authorities for an inspection. If the inspector confirms that there’s a violation, they can put additional pressure on the landlord to make a repair. In some states, that may come in the form of a repair order, while in other jurisdictions a housing agency or the Department of Health can require the landlord to pay a fine or show up in court, in addition to certifying that the violation has been corrected. Make sure to keep copies of any correspondence with city inspectors, and ask for copies of any inspection reports.
- Withholding rent until the landlord stops refusing to make repairs. In exchange for rent, landlords must provide safe and habitable housing, which means that—in many states—you have the right to withhold rent if the landlord fails to uphold their end of the deal. This can give you some negotiating leverage and increase pressure on your landlord to make repairs, though your landlord may not take kindly to this strategy. (Of course, if it gets to this point, things are likely already pretty contentious.)
If you choose to withhold rent, notify your landlord in writing and then set your rent money aside somewhere safe, like in a separate bank account. That way, if your landlord still refuses to make repairs but takes you to court and tries to evict you for not paying rent, you can prove that you had the money to pay and were deliberately withholding it, rather than just slacking. If your case does go to court, a judge may order you to pay some of your rent money back once repairs are complete, unless conditions in your place were so unlivable that they justified living completely rent-free.
- Repairing and deducting apartment repair costs. Rather than withholding rent, you can hire someone to perform the repair and then deduct the associated costs from your rent. Note that in some states, you do not actually have the legal right to make these repairs—technically your apartment is the landlord’s property—but if you have made a clear, well-documented effort to get the landlord to fix the issue, many courts will still allow you to repair and deduct. Again, this only applies to repairs that affect the habitability of your apartment, not adding a new light fixture over your dinner table, or freshening things up with a new coat of paint.
To start this process, you’ll need to send a letter to your landlord for repairs and have it contain a description of the issue, information on the necessary repairs, and an estimate of the cost. Set a reasonable deadline for a response from the landlord, and note that you’ll be hiring someone to make the repairs—and deducting the cost from your rent—if you don’t get a response. If the landlord still doesn’t respond, have the repairs done and be sure to save all bills and receipts.
- Breaking your lease if apartment health code violations occur. If the issues in your apartment are violations of health, safety, or building codes, some states will let you break your lease. As with all of the scenarios above, you will need documentation of your attempts to request repairs to prove that the landlord problems are legitimate. You’ll also need an inspection report or another official record of the violations—if it’s determined that you broke your lease and there were no violations, or if they were only minor, you may still be responsible for paying rent.
So, who do you call when your landlord won’t fix things? First, always be sure to consult with a legal expert or tenant advocacy group before taking any of the above actions or reporting your landlord. Also, if your landlord’s other tenants are facing similar issues, you may want to band together—you’ll be able to put more pressure on your landlord if they refuse to make repairs, and can pool your resources to afford legal representation and take your landlord to court.