Tenants' Rights When Landlord Breaks Rental Agreement

Most people would agree that having a big shade tree on their property is a good thing. One renter in Charlotte, N.C. was under that impression -- until it started growing through a wall of his apartment.

His first course of action was notifying his landlord of the problem. He called the landlord, e-mailed him and sent a certified letter. He'd been living there for five years and wanted to keep this as amicable as possible. When the landlord continued to be unresponsive, his second course of action was withholding his rent. But that's not where it stopped.

If you have an unresponsive landlord, here are your rights as a renter and what you can do legally:
Landlord Tenant Responsibilities

According to attorney Jim Surane of Cornelius, N.C., every state has its own statutes on the rights and responsibilities of tenants and landlords. The Massachusetts Tenant/Landlord Rights are known for favoring landlords, and are used as a benchmark for several states on the East Coast.

The California Tenant/Landlord Rights are known to be the most favorable toward the tenant, and are also used by other states on the West Coast. To find the statutes for your state, go to your state government's website (i.e. mass.gov is Massachusetts' website) and enter "Residential Landlord/Tenant Act" and there will be a handbook listing your rights and responsibilities. However, there are certain universally accepted obligations that are included in most lease agreements, no matter where you live:

Tenant's Responsibilities:
  • Pay rent on time.
  • Use reasonable care not to damage the property.
  • Properly dispose of garbage.
  • No additional occupants unless permission is granted by the landlord.

Landlord's Responsibilities:
  • Make property habitable (fit for occupation by human beings, and substantially complies with state and local building and health codes that materially affect tenants' health and safety).
  • Make and pay for repairs due to ordinary wear and tear.
  • Refrain from turning off water, electric and gas (unless on separate meters and noted on lease agreement).
  • Provide written notification of change of ownership.
  • May not discriminate.

Landlords rent properties to make money, which motivates them to keep tenants happy in order to keep their properties fully rented and generating income. However, some miserly landlords are slow to make repairs because any expenditure means money out of their pocket. If this is the case with your landlord, these are the steps that the State of Michigan recommends you follow:
  • Notify the landlord of the problem by telephone and also by certified mail, return receipt requested. Log the date, time, and result of each call and maintain a file with copies of all written correspondence. Document everything!
  • If problems are with insects, save some in a jar in case you need to go to court, and photograph any infestations.
  • Ask a friend to serve as an "objective witness" and photograph the problem areas. Make sure the friend signs, dates and labels the photos with the room, its issues and the time of day photo was taken.
  • If the issue is with heat, log temperature readings in various rooms at different times of the day.
  • Contact the housing department. Request your unit be inspected to see if it is up to code.

If problems are not fixed in a reasonable amount of time, you are allowed to withhold rent until the landlord makes the property habitable per the 1968 Warranty of Habitability, MCL554.139. The landlord is not allowed to terminate your lease agreement in retaliation for withholding rent.

A landlord cannot evict you, only a judge can. If the landlord sues to evict you for unpaid rent, you now have documentation for a counter-claim and proof of why you were withholding rent.

Each state has different definitions of "habitable" and different acceptable options for dealing with it, so make sure you research your own state.

If you live in California, or other states that use their benchmark, there are several options for dealing with an unresponsive landlord:
  • You can pay a competent repair person and deduct the cost of the repair from your rent. Keep copies of all repair receipts and get a statement detailing the problem and the work performed to correct it. [Civil Code Section 1942]
  • You can withhold a portion of the rent until the repairs are made. To determine how much to withhold, calculate the percentage of the home that is uninhabitable (i.e. one room out of a four-room apartment would be a 25 percent deduction off the rent until repairs are made). [Green v. Superior Court (1974) 10 Cal.3d 616 (111 Cal.Rptr. 704)]
  • You may abandon (move out of) the property if the rental unit has defects that are serious and directly related to the tenant's health and safety, but only after landlord has been notified via certified mail and has been given a reasonable period of time to respond but hasn't. [Civil Code Section 1942.5(a)]

If you're wondering what happened to our friend in Charlotte, he went to court to sue his landlord and eventually settled his lawsuit for $22,000. His experience should be a lesson to you: Make sure that you communicate clearly and often with the landlord; make sure that you keep documentation of all communications and defects; and only go to court as a last resort.

Barbara Green is The Design Diva and owner of Sensibly Chic Interior Design. Follow her on Twitter @thedesigndiva.
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