What if the roof is leaking into your living room or the elevator has been out of service for an extended period?
The first thing a tenant should do (after putting a bucket under or over the problem) is notify the landlord in writing of the problem. You can call to follow up, but notice must be given in writing, and sent in the manner provided in the lease. If you end up in court (that’s some foreshadowing, right there) you need to be able to demonstrate that you gave notice to the landlord. Having it in writing is the best way to do that.
The strongest leverage that tenants have when it comes to compelling landlords to make repairs is the withholding of rent. A tenant might either withhold rent and make the repair, or withhold the rent until the landlord makes the repair. A tenant should only undertake minor repairs that are not expensive relative to the monthly rent. You don’t want to incur a large expense to improve property that you do not have an ownership interest in. For example, you do not want to replace a roof or install new elevators. The rent withheld should also be in a reasonable amount to make the repair, and the balance of the rent should be paid to the landlord. A minor repair does not entirely relieve the tenant of the obligation to pay rent. Further, any work must be done properly in a workmanlike manner by someone skilled to make such repair. Take before and after photos of the repair and keep all the bids, invoices, and proof of payment (more foreshadowing).
Withholding rent is not for the conflict avoidant, as it can bring about a nonpayment proceeding if the landlord feels that such withholding is not justified. The tenant’s defense, which must be proven, would be that the landlord failed to make necessary repairs that are his obligation under the lease. The tenant will need to present evidence to the court in the form of notice and written communication with the landlord, photos, invoices, payments, and so forth. The judge will determine what portion of the rent will be abated.
A qualified attorney experienced in dealing with landlord tenant issues can help at any point in the process, but generally the earlier the better.
Alanna C. Iacono is an Associate on the Real Estate Team. She can be reached by phone at 866-303-9595 toll free or 845-764-9656 and by email.