Landlord Liability for Unsafe Living Conditions

With few exceptions, tenants are legally entitled to rental property that is in good repair and meets basic structural, health, and safety standards—both when they originally rent the unit and throughout the rental term. Depending on the state and the severity of the problem, tenants have the right to withhold rent, pay for the repairs and deduct the cost from the rent, move out, and/or pursue other legal remedies if the landlord violates their legal responsibility to provide safe and livable (habitable) premises.

Landlord Repair and Maintenance Responsibilities

State laws and local housing codes typically require landlords to:

  • keep basic structural elements of the rental property (for example, walls and roofs) safe and intact
  • maintain common areas, such as stairways, clean, sanitary and safe
  • keep electrical, plumbing, and other essential services operating safely, and
  • comply with other housing rules, for example, regarding sewage disposal, fire protection, rodent infestations, legal nuisances, such as drug dealing on the property, and the like.

Learn more about what Responsibilites Landlords Have For Maintenance.

Unsafe Living Conditions: Tenant Options

If a landlord fails to provide safe and livable rental premises, tenants typically have specific legal options. In most states, if the landlord fails to fix a serious problem that makes the rental unit uninhabitable—such as holes or leaks in the walls, unsafe floorboards, or no waste disposal—tenant options include:

  • withholding the rent
  • repairing the problem (or hiring someone else to do so) and deducting the cost from the rent
  • filing a complaint with state or local health or building inspectors (who may fine a landlord who fails to correct the problem within a set amount of time, or actually condemn the property in severe cases)
  • suing the landlord for the difference between the monthly rent and the value of the unit with defects, or
  • moving out (without giving the required amount of notice).

Learn more about Tenants' Rights For Repairs.

Steps Tenants Must Follow to Pursue a Legal Option

State (and sometimes local) rules typically provide specific details on these options (if available at all). Tenants must usually meet three conditions to pursue one of these legal options:

(1) The problem must be serious (such as rats in the kitchen) and imperil the tenant's health and safety. Tenants have different options when it comes to minor repairs.

(2) The tenant must tell the landlord about the problem and give the landlord a minimum amount of time (this is often set by state law) to fix it.

(3) The tenant must not have caused the problem (either deliberately or through carelessness or neglect).

Other conditions may apply, depending on the legal remedy. For example, a tenant who withholds rent must typically be paid up in rent and in compliance with all lease clauses; some states require that tenants deposit the unpaid rent with a court or local housing agency. When it comes to the repair and deduct remedy, many states limit the amount a tenant can deduct to a dollar limit or a specific percentage of the rent, and only allow the use of this remedy for essential services, such as heat in the winter.

How Tenants Can Avoid Problems and Protect Themselves

The best way to avoid living in an unsafe rental unit is to thoroughly inspect the property before moving in. Be sure your lease or rental agreement spells out landlord responsibilities for repairs and maintenance. Also, try to get information from other tenants on the how the landlord handles repairs and maintenance and responds to tenant complaints.

Because rules and procedures vary widely, tenants need to do a little legal research and check state and local housing laws, especially state rules on rent withholding and repair and deduct remedies, to clearly understand their rights and options when it comes to unsafe living conditions. It's also a good idea to check state laws prohibiting landlord retaliation for exercise of a tenant right. Finally, be aware that rules may be in flux when it comes to certain problems, such as mold or bedbugs, or landlord liability for criminal activity on rental premises.

Legal Advice

Tenants are legally entitled to rental property that is in good repair and meets basic structural, health, and safety standards. However, tenants may encounter issues with their rental property reducing their enjoyment or making their home uninhabitable. Thus, state laws often specify legal remedies tenants have if their rights are violated. And some issues are not easily resolved. It may be in your best interest to consult with an experienced tenant's lawyer for advice.

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