Written by attorney Jeffrey M Feuer

Tenants Rights in Massachusetts

All renters in Massachusetts are entitled to certain basic rights:

1. Exclusive Right to Possession of the Apartment

Can my landlord lock me out of my apartment without a court order?

No, not for any reason. Only a court can evict you from your home.

Can my landlord enter my apartment without my permission?

No, with three exceptions: If the landlord has a court order allowing entry, or if the apartment appears to have been abandoned by you, or if there is a real emergency (fire, flood, etc.), then she can enter without permission.

Can I simply refuse to give my landlord permission to enter my apartment?

No. With at least 24 hours' notice, you are required to allow your landlord entry to: (a) inspect the apartment, (b) make repairs, (c) show the apartment to a prospective tenant, buyer or realtor, or (d) inspect the apartment for damages within the last 30 days of your tenancy.

2. The Right to a Safe and Habitable Apartment

Your landlord must provide all of the following in your apartment: a stove and oven (refrigerator not required), hot water, heat, and other utilities (unless you agree in writing to a different arrangement). The landlord must also maintain all utilities and appliances she agreed to provide. In addition, there is a state Sanitary Code that sets minimum standards for all housing in Massachusetts.

What can I do if my landlord is violating the Sanitary Code?

This law is enforced by local Boards of Health and Inspectional Service Departments, so you can request a free inspection of your apartment if you believe your landlord is violating the code. If the situation is endangering your health or safety, you are entitled to have an inspection within 24 hours.

Can I withhold rent if there's a problem with my apartment?

Yes, only under certain very specific conditions, as your landlord can use your refusal to pay rent as an excuse to file an eviction action against you in court. You should consult with an attorney beforewithholding any rent.

Can I fix the problem myself and then deduct from my rent?

Yes, but again only if certain very specific conditions apply, including the fact the Board of Health must have certified that the conditions endanger health or safety, the landlord has received written notice of these violations, and that he has failed to begin repairs in a timely manner. You may deduct only up to 4 months' rent at most. You should consult with an attorney before paying for repairs which you intend to deduct from your rent.

3. The Right to Quiet Enjoyment

This means:

No interference with your utility services.

No conditions that endanger your health or safety.

No entry into your apartment by your landlord without your permission (see above).

4. The Right to be Free from Retaliation

If you exercise your legal rights, your landlord is not allowed to retaliate against you. Retaliation includes: raising your rent, trying to evict you, or changing any terms of your tenancy. The law gives you the benefit of the doubt: If your landlord takes any of these actions within 6 months after you exercised your rights, the law assumes that they are retaliatory, unless your landlord can prove that she had a true and legitimate reason to change your tenancy.

If you find yourself in any of the situations described above, or in any kind of dispute with your landlord, be sure to document everything you do or see in writing! Send a letter to the landlord, and always date it, sign it, and keep a copy for yourself. Talking to your landlord on the phone, or in person, is not enough, as your landlord may claim that you never told her about any problem(s).

What Can I Do about Problems in My Apartment?

You have a right to a safe and habitable apartment. State law requires that you have heat, hot water, electricity, and working toilets. Doors and windows must have working locks. The state Sanitary Code lists many other requirements that a landlord must meet for renting and maintaining any apartment. If a condition develops that interferes with your right to have a decent, safe and sanitary dwelling, the landlord must act quickly to fix it.

All of this applies whether or not you have a lease. The warranty of habitability applies to all apartments. This means that a landlord must guarantee that your apartment is decent and safe to live in at all times. Your landlord cannot get around this rule with a clause in your lease or rental agreement. Any such clause is illegal. Likewise, you cannot be made responsible for making repairs (only your landlord is responsible), and your landlord can't claim that the rent is lower because of defective conditions in your apartment.

What actions can I take to resolve a problem once it arises?

First, notify your landlord of the problem. Depending on how serious the problem is, your landlord has a certain amount of time to fix it, once he is notified about the problem. The best way to notify him of serious problems is with a short letter or note. Be sure to fully explain all problems in the letter. If you face an emergency problem, notify your landlord immediately by phone or any other means, but follow up with a letter, if the problem isn't fixed immediately. Always ask your landlord when the repair person will be coming to your apartment, and make sure someone is at home to let them in.

What are my options if the landlord won't fix the problem?

If your landlord refuses to make the repairs within a reasonable time, you should contact a local government housing inspector for a free housing inspection. If your apartment has significant Sanitary Code violations in it, an inspector can order your landlord to make repairs. Housing inspectors must visit your apartment within 24 hours if there are serious problems.

You don't need to notify your landlord of the problem before calling an inspector, and you have the right to an inspection in a reasonable amount of time, even if the problem isn't an emergency. Someone must be present during the inspection. Make sure to point out all problems to the inspector, and ask for a copy of his report. You should also take photos or video of the problem(s).

What happens after the inspection?

If the inspector agrees that there are problems with your apartment, he'll document this and send a repair order to your landlord. If the problem is so serious that it threatens your safety or health, the inspector must send your landlord a repair order within 12 hours of the inspection. The landlord must then make a good-faith effort to fix the problem(s) within 24 hours after receiving that order.

If the problems are not that serious, the landlord must still fix the problems. The inspector will send a repair order to your landlord within 7 days, and your landlord will have 5 days to begin the repairs and 30 days to complete them-- or less, if the inspector says so. If your landlord doesn't comply, contact the inspector and ask for a re-inspection. The inspector is required to come back.

What else can I do?

If your landlord just won't fix the problem, in spite of your letters and the housing inspector's order, you still have a few options: withhold rent; make repairs and deduct the cost from your rent; break your lease and move out; or go to court. You should consult a lawyer to determine which course of action would be best for you to take.

Withholding rent

Under some very specific circumstances, you can legally withhold some or all of your rent until the needed repairs are made. If you are entitled to withhold rent and the problem affects other tenants in the building as well, you should try to convince other tenants to join you in withholding. As soon as your landlord fixes the problem, you'll need to begin paying your rent in full again.

You should put any withheld rent aside in a separate bank account, because if your landlord takes you to court to fight your withholding, you'll be able to prove to the judge that you didn't just decide to withhold rent because you couldn't afford to pay. Your landlord may even try to evict you, but if you follow all the rules for withholding rent, she won't win. Be aware that a judge may order you to pay back some of the withheld rent if he believes you withheld too much, based on how much the problem(s) actually affected the value of your apartment. This is another reason you should set aside the withheld rent in a bank. If you're ordered to pay back some of that money and you don't, you could be evicted!

Repair and Deduct

You can legally make repairs yourself and then deduct the cost, again only under some very specific circumstances. If the problem affects other tenants besides you, you can join with other tenants to fix the problem and each of you can deduct your share from your own rent. You cannot deduct more than 4 months' rent within any 12-month period. You must save all bills and receipts for parts and labor, so than you can prove you actually paid for all the repairs you deducted. Your landlord cannot evict you for deducting what she thinks is too much, and she cannot raise your rent later to make up for the rent you deducted.

Break your lease and move out

If the problems in your apartment are so bad that you feel you must move, and the landlord won't fix them, you are allowed to break your lease. If you don't have a lease, you are allowed to leave without the required notice of one full rental period. The landlord may try to sue you for damages, so you should first be sure that the problems are serious, and that you can prove this with a housing inspector's report and other evidence. If a judge decides the problems weren't serious enough that you had to move out, you may be held responsible for breaking your lease or not giving notice, and you may have to pay back rent.

Go to court

The law allows you to go to court, where a judge can order your landlord to make repairs, or order her to pay you money for the harm you've suffered. The judge could even fine your landlord, or appoint someone else to manage the property in place of your landlord.

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