My first apartment out of college had a consistent plumbing problem: the shower in the bathroom directly above the kitchen (which happened to be my bathroom) leaked each time it was used.
My roommate and I called the maintenance department several times. Although they could see the damage to the kitchen ceiling, they could not get the shower to leak when they tested it, even after attempting to on three separate occasions. After the third visit, they decided the problem was “fixed” and said they wouldn’t be back.
And of course, the shower leaked the very next time it was used.
My roommate and I discussed our options. Thankfully, we mentioned the issue to an older friend who told us that our plan to withhold rent until the problem was fixed was illegal. Instead, we needed to put our rent in escrow.
Within two days of placing our rent in escrow, the leak was identified and fixed, as was the kitchen ceiling. If only we had done it earlier!
Many renters are similarly unaware of their rights and responsibilities when they have a beef with their landlord.
Here’s what you need to know about resolving disputes with your landlord:
1. Make sure you’re up-to-date on your rent.
No matter what aspect of the lease agreement your landlord is violating, you have no leg to stand on if you’re violating your end of the lease. In addition, if your landlord or superintendent needs to visit your apartment in order to address the problem, make sure that the property is in decent condition before they arrive. You need to demonstrate that you’re a responsible tenant — otherwise your landlord might get distracted by the issue of your back rent or the way your dog has destroyed the carpet.
2. Know what your landlord is expected to take care of.
This should be spelled out in your lease agreement; although a general rule of thumb is that landlords are responsible for issues of health and safety, but not those of aesthetics, like small cracks in walls or lack of fresh paint.
3. Keep all documents.
This is a situation where the onus is on the tenant to prove that you have actually made the complaints and that they have gone unanswered. This means that you need to follow up phone calls with letters — which you keep a copy of — in order to prove that you’ve been asking for remedy from your landlord. In some cases, you’ll want to send your letters via certified mail, so that you have independent confirmation from the post office that your notice was sent.
Without your paper trail, your landlord could easily say, “This is the first I’ve heard of it.” If your landlord corresponds with tenants via email, keeping your emails to and from him/her is a good record of your complaint history.
4. Put your rent in escrow.
If, after a reasonable amount of time, your landlord has not fixed the issue, then your next step is to put your rent in escrow. The rent escrow laws vary from state to state, so you’ll want to look up your local regulations to know exactly what you need to do. In most cases, you’ll need to provide your landlord with a formal notice of the need for a repair 30 days prior to filing for escrow.
In many cases — like mine for instance — the loss of rent to escrow is enough to light a fire under your landlord to fix the issue. In some cases, however, the situation may escalate. That’s when it’s a good idea to get some legal advice — and also when your paper trail will be invaluable.
The Bottom Line
When tenants have a legitimate issue with their landlord, it’s up to them to prove that the landlord is being negligent. Be sure that you understand your rights and know what you must do in order to get the situation remedied.
Have you ever had a problem with a landlord? How did you fix it?