The laws of every state include various rights and remedies available to a renter whose landlord refuses to make repairs. In some instances, a tenant can break their lease, refuse to pay rent, or even sue their landlord.
However, tenants must be careful when using these more extreme options, as they are reserved for major breakdowns and generally will not apply to a leaky faucet or crack in the wall.
If something breaks in your apartment which affects your health and safety or renders the unit uninhabitable, such as a lack of running water, flooding, lack of electricity, or lack of heat (lack of air conditioning may also be considered a major issue depending on the location and climate), you may be able to end your lease.
Before taking any action against the landlord, the first step is to notify them of the problem immediately. Of course, telling the landlord in person or over the phone is the quickest way to address the issue, but always be sure to follow up with a written complaint fully explaining the problem, the date it occurred, and the remedy needed.
For major problems that render the unit unlivable, a tenant may usually terminate the lease immediately. Otherwise, a termination is often appropriate if nothing has been done to completely rectify the issue within 7-15 days.
Terminating a lease and moving out is usually not the ideal solution, but there are others options if your landlord is taking too long to get the work done. In these situations, a tenant may arrange for the repairs and offset the cost against any or all of the outstanding rent amount due under the lease agreement. The repair costs must be of fair market value, and the damages must be such that the apartment is substantially or totally unlivable.
Also, a tenant may sometimes withhold (or "abate") rent payments under the lease agreement for as long as it takes to see the repairs completed by the landlord’s contractors.
A lawsuit is always an option if the situation cannot be resolved. These lawsuits are typically for breach of contract, hinging directly on the notion that the landlord was expected to fulfill certain duties under the lease and failed to do so. If you are thinking of taking this route, be prepare with documentation to accompany the complaint, including the lease agreement, your notice of damage, the repair bill, and pictures of the damage.
If you find yourself on the receiving end of a landlord-tenant lawsuit, the landlord is likely to claim that you wrongfully withheld rent in violation of the lease agreement. If this is the case, your defense should include documentation and evidence of the damage to the apartment, evidence to support the fact it was substantially or totally unlivable, and any money spent to repair or rectify the problem.
A landlord-tenant attorney will be a helpful ally if the repair issue turns to litigation, and many states also have a landlord-tenant component to their legal aid program.
Not all damages are covered under these rules, especially if the issue is not the landlord’s fault. In every state, a tenant will be responsible for repairs if they or their guest(s) caused the damages. This applies to damage that is directly caused by the negligence or misconduct of the tenant or guest, and does not include normal wear-and-tear or damage occurring over time.
In addition, if a tenant opts to pay the costs of repair with the plan to offset rent later, the landlord will not be responsible for additional repairs that become necessary due to the negligence or misconduct of the contractor. In essence, once the tenant chooses the "self-help" method of apartment repair, they are bound by the workmanship of the contractor.