Can my landlord refuse to make repairs?
July 15, 2009 8:48 AM   Subscribe

ApartmentNightmareFilter: My new apartment is falling apart and no one will step up. What are my rights here?

I just moved into a lovely apartment in a beautiful, historical building in a major city in the Northeast. Unfortunately, over the past x number of years, that beautiful, historical building has fallen into disrepair.

When I saw the apartment and signed my lease a few months ago, it was furnished and being lived in, which masked many of the problems that have now come up. The apartment has not been painted in many, many years -- paint is peeling all over the apartment, and many of the windows are falling apart and rotting. Most of the doors do not close. Almost all of the electrical outlets are still ungrounded (two pronged instead of three). When we moved in, there was a large hole in the ceiling of the bathroom due to water damage -- after much fighting it was patched but it has yet to be repainted. It was not cleaned after the last tenants moved, and I've removed upwards of 50 loose nails and screws from the walls. Our stove does not work, nearly all of the window screens are ripped, and at least three of the window panes are cracked. This is the tip of the iceberg.

We reported these problems to our contact at the property management company that manages our building, who then reported the problems to our landlord, who then (according to the property manager) "came down to our office and threw a fit." We're now being told that my roommates and I are "not a good fit" for the apartment, because the previous tenants never complained.

I don't even know what to do at this point. What are my rights here? I don't think they're going to force us to move out (I feel pretty sure they can't do that...), but it seems like they're saying that we can either put up with it, pay for the repairs ourselves, or get out of Dodge. My roommate is setting up a meeting with the property manager for later today; we really, really don't want to move again. What can we do in this situation? Any advice would be really appreciated.
posted by telegraph to Home & Garden (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Generally, the landlord must maintain the living premises to a certain level of repair, such as having a working stove, having windows that function, proper temperatures, etc. But these rules change depending on your state and city sometimes, so please provide that info so we can find out what the rules in your place are.
posted by Meagan at 8:52 AM on July 15, 2009

Response by poster: Meagan - I'm in Boston, MA.
posted by telegraph at 8:53 AM on July 15, 2009

I've found this page" which contains information important here. In the "Habitability Rights" section it includes text which says the landlord must provide you with a working stove, as well as maintaining doors, windows, etc "so that it excludes wind, rain, and snow; is rodent-proof, weathertight, watertight, and free from chronic dampness; in good repair, and in every way fit for its intended use. " It's obvious to me (a regular person) that rotting windows and doors that don't close do not fit this description. Thus I would say that yes, the landlord is not upholding their end of the agreement.

As for what to do, well you need to talk with someone who can advance your case. Continue to read that link, there is a section entitled Tenant's Remedies. You can attempt to solve the issue yourself, you can find a lawyer who will help you, you could even look for some type of tenant help center in your town. As per that site, you have contacted them with your requests, so your next step is to get an inspection of your dwelling from the local health and safety board for health code violations. Also, examine your lease carefully to see whether there are conditions for repairs in them.

If you need more help, I'm sure others will chime in, you can also contact this group who can likely direct you to the appropriate person.
posted by Meagan at 9:02 AM on July 15, 2009

Your property management team sucks. I'm sure they know full well how illegal all this crap is, and for them to come back to you and say "the owner threw a fit" and imply that this is all your fault is bullshit. Print out the relative laws for your city, take it to the meeting, and say nicely "you guys are professionals, I expect you to handle this." Be outrageously polite, but don't let them push you around. It is entirely possible that they are feeding you a line about both the previous tenants' stoic indifference to non-working appliances and the landlord's apparent unconcern that his property is falling into disrepair. At any rate, you have some rights regarding the stove and windows, maybe not the outlets.
posted by oneirodynia at 9:25 AM on July 15, 2009

It's easier to blame you for the problems, then for the property management company or the landlord to say, wow, we never went in and inspected the apartment while the previous tenants were there, so we didn't know there were all these problems, and now it's going to cost us money we don't have to fix it. However, if this is the true degree of disrepair of the unit, how on earth did you NOT see it when you viewed the apartment?? Or not see it when you MOVED IN?

While I appreciate the fact that you couldn't see some things when you moved in, how did you not see the walls? DId they have medieval tapestries on hanging on every wall? Did you not go look at the bathroom to check the water pressure in the shower? Did you not look at the windows to see if they were old and leaky and going to make the apartment IN BOSTON freezing in the winter? You honestly didn't see the cracked windowpanes when you were looking at the place?

It wasn't cleaned when the previous tenants moved out? Did you call the property management company as soon as you learned that? What did they tell you you would get when you moved in? Did it say it would be in 'broom clean' condition or was it 'as is'? Did you not get a walkthrough with the building management company when you moved in to identify issues like a stove that doesn't work?

Listen, I'm not defending crappy landlords, but is this your first apartment ever or something? Because you put yourself in this situation. The time to see this stuff is when you view the apartment or right before you sign the lease or if somehow the previous residents were magicians and had some kind of spell on the place, THE DAY YOU MOVE IN.

Sure, you can fight them in court, but it's going to take forever and you're going to be constantly in a situation of conflict with the landlord and the building managers. It is honestly going to be easier for you to move into a new place right now - WHERE YOU SHOULD DO ALL THE THINGS I MENTION ABOVE - than fight the landlord in a place you just moved into.

I lived in a great building in Seattle once and two days after I moved in the ceiling in the bathroom above the shower fell in. This was a great building with great owners and great managers and it took weeks to get it worked out. When my stove died just before Thanksgiving - well, it blew just before thanksgiving, and yeah, they got me a new one, but it took longer than the 48 hours or whatever that's part of the WA state tenant's law, and I could have gotten all into a tizzy and taken them to court, or I could look at the fact that the one time I was on deadline and I was 10 days late with the rent because I just plain old forgot to pay it, all the manager said was, "Oh, I was just about to call you to make sure you were okay, you are never late with the rent so I wasn't worried". Sometimes you gotta see the shades of gray.
posted by micawber at 9:30 AM on July 15, 2009 [2 favorites]

In New York, issues like this are considered consumers' rights issues and are handled by the Attorney General's office. You could also call your non-emergency number (like 311) to see who they can direct you to.

It might take some pressure from an outside source to get your landlord/management company to fix the things you're entitled to have. Use those resources.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 9:42 AM on July 15, 2009

In New York state, you are permitted to withhold the rent until such problems are fixed. Other states have similar rules in place. Check and see whether Massachusetts permits this same defensive tactic. DON'T ACTUALLY DO IT UNLESS YOU'RE SURE THAT IT'S LEGAL WHERE YOU ARE! A lawyer can help you with this.

Anyway, if you're allowed to do that, and you do it, they'll take you to court to get the rent. That's when you get *your* day in court, and you can drop your grievances on them Once they fix stuff, you'll have to give them the back rent. But, again, have a local lawyer guide you through this process, or you will lose badly.

After saying all that, I'll agree somewhat with micawber in that it's probably a lot easier to just find a different/better place.

Good luck!
posted by Citrus at 9:43 AM on July 15, 2009


Keep a log of every phone call you've made, specifically whether you reach anyone or not, and who that person is and what they said.

Make a list of all the problems in the apartment. Some of these are legitimate problems (the broken stove) some are not (the nails and screws left in the walls.) It's not up to you to decide what is legit, so document it all.

The point is not to produce a document which demonstrates how shitty the landlord and management firm is, the point is to cover your ass when you do break your lease.

The reason I suggest you break your lease is two fold: 1.) the nitpicky stuff that bothers you about the apartment (the cosmetic stuff, the half-ass repairs, etc) this WILL NEVER be fixed. No amount of screaming or yelling will resolve that because they have no incentive to fix it. 2.) The things that must be fixed by law, the stove, possibly the windows, etc., will only get fixed after you exhaust yourselves and create an enormous amount of ill will.

In other words, you're screwed, get out now.

Take photos (pay a few bucks to have them printed in color if you have to) documenting the poor state of the apartment. Put this together with your extensive call log and notes (which demonstrate the problems you've had getting anyone to do anything) march down to the property management office and say, "Look at what we have here. The land lord is right, we are 'not a good a fit' because, you know, we don't want to live in such lousy conditions - you wouldn't either. So let us break the lease, give us back our deposit, and good luck renting this place to someone less discerning."

A friend of mine had about the same problem. She wound up in a shitty apartment with an inattentive landlord. After much back and forth she broke her lease and got her deposit back in full. She did this by meeting the landlord, pulling a folder which had about eight pages of color photos and another five with dates and times documenting her struggles with the apartment. The landlord took a look at the material, knew he didn't have any good excuses that would stand up in housing court, and refunded her deposit.

Not saying it'll be as easy for you - property management firms deal with people skipping out on leases all the time and usually are familiar with the court process and are willing to come after you. Then again, by showing that you have your act together, that you're serious, and that you've put time and effort into crafting a complaint that any reasonable person can look at and see where the fault lies, they may actually resolve many of the issues you have.

Good luck, and let this experience be a lesson.
posted by wfrgms at 10:33 AM on July 15, 2009 [1 favorite]

There are two issues, habitability (need) and aesthetics (want). He really has to fix the issues that your state considers habitability issues. Look those up.

In a lot of cases, what you or I might consider a need, is not in the eyes of your landlord or the law. Unless your paint is full of lead, peeling or missing paint is probably not somethign he has to fix, you saw the place, right? You saw that it had some ongoing maintenance issues. I bet you are getting a pretty good deal on rent. In his head, that is the tradeoff, he doesn't put much into and he doesn't charge much. You might really not be a good fit for his style of landlording.

I have a small apartment I rent out. I have rented it out when the yard, kitchen, paint and everything was immaculate. I have also had to rent it out when it was far from immaculate, when I did so, I made very clear that this was an "as-is" rental and that the tenant accepted it at its current level of cleanliness and condition. I am not talking about habitability here, the systems worked, the doors, and windows were fine.

Anyhow, I think you get my point. Figure out what the law says in your state and get those fixed. Try to remember he is a person too and doesn't have infinite resources to fix everythign all at once. If the other tenant didn't complain, its possible this is the first he is hearing about a lot of this and is freaking about because he doesn't have a lot of cash to throw at the problem. If you can't get it resolved I would ask about ending the lease amicably, get everything in writing, and leave. I advise against staying there AND withholding rent, those situations get ugly.

You really don't want live in a place that is perhaps not sound with a landlord who thinks you are some kind of a pain.
posted by stormygrey at 10:43 AM on July 15, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for the responses so far. A few clarifications:
micawbear - Yes, this is a first apartment for myself as well as my roommates. When we saw the apartment, the much of the walls were covered with posters, tapestries, whiteboards, curtains, and the like -- hence the ridiculous quantity of loose nails left when the previous tenants moved. We did not get a walk through with the property managers when we moved in, I had no idea that that was customary. We were told during the initial showing that the apartment would be cleaned and painted before we moved in, but of course that's not stipulated in the lease. I understand that we dropped the ball here, and thank you for the advice for the future, but right now I can't go back in time and try to turn on the stove when I first saw the apartment.

To everyone who is recommending that we leave, the property managers have already suggested that we do just that: rather than make the repairs, they would like to refund everything we have paid them and get us out (why they prefer to give us back several times the amount of money it would cost to make the required repairs, I do not know). If we decide to go that route, is it reasonable to demand that they pay the broker fees on our next apartment and for movers?
posted by telegraph at 11:02 AM on July 15, 2009

I would guess, that is cheaper to give you the money back, some of those issues (rotten windows) can be very expensive to fix correctly.
posted by stormygrey at 11:16 AM on July 15, 2009

Also, if they fix your rotten windows, then every other tenant is going to want new windows.

It's far cheaper to give you all your money back than it is to replace a hundred windows.
posted by chazlarson at 11:30 AM on July 15, 2009

First apartment...roommates...last tenants had posters everywhere... This really looks like one of those things where you're supposed to know the place is shabby, and you're expected to shut up because you're getting a break on the rent.

Are you getting a break on the rent? Or -- are you somebody who most landlords wouldn't rent to for whatever reason (sixteen cats? on welfare? etc)?

Because if you do have this sort of deal...well, it's that sort of deal.

If your rent is fair, approach the property managers in less adversarial fashion. If your lease includes a stove, point that out. If it doesn't, just drop it. Get a pal with a truck and get a 1970s harvest gold stove off the 'Free' section on Craigslist. Suggest that they purchase paint and rollers and you and your roommates will supply the labour. Prioritize your complaints and be prepared to discard most of them, because most are not habitability issues.
posted by kmennie at 11:44 AM on July 15, 2009

To everyone who is recommending that we leave, the property managers have already suggested that we do just that: rather than make the repairs, they would like to refund everything we have paid them and get us out

Right, because they're slumlords. The only thing these people respond to is repeated strikes with a legal cluebat. Arm yourself with knowledge and if they still won't repair, start doing repair-and-deduct. For extra fun, leave instructions on exactly what you're doing in common areas of the building so that other tenants can benefit from your experience.
posted by rhizome at 11:45 AM on July 15, 2009

If we decide to go that route, is it reasonable to demand that they pay the broker fees on our next apartment and for movers?

No. Thank your lucky stars that they're offering you a refund on everything you've paid (does that mean rent as well as security deposit?). Most shady landlords are not nearly so charitable. GET IN WRITING that your lease is terminated.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 11:47 AM on July 15, 2009 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: kmennie - All leases in MA include a stove unless otherwise stipulated. I assure you we never signed a document that said "no stove." There is no reason not to rent to us; we have no pets and are all working professional full time jobs. We are not getting a break on the rent -- I have already seen an apartment less than a block away for roughly the same price.

I guess we're moving.
posted by telegraph at 11:48 AM on July 15, 2009

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