Are there laws about heating empty apartments?
January 21, 2019 8:22 AM   Subscribe

The vacant apartment underneath me had a dying smoke detector for months that made my life hell that has since stopped beeping, but now there is a new problem: they have their heat off, and the pipes have frozen as a result.

Are there laws about this? Don't they have to keep their unit at a minimum level of heat? How does one go about having this law enforced if there are legal requirements for vacant apartment units? I Googled and couldn't figure it out. I'm a little worried that there is going to be damage in my unit because of this, but maybe we caught it early enough that things will be ok.

I ask because their unit is leeching heat out from my apartment and my heating bills are astronomical this winter as a result. I'm always cold now because of this. Now I've lost at least a half a day of work (at least) to the plumber, who is here now trying to remedy the situation.

I live in New Jersey. My landlord is really responsive and nice but he doesn't own the downstairs unit (these are condos that are separately owned) so he has limited ability to do things about it. I've lived here for a long time and don't want to move, but it's becoming increasingly awful living above an empty unit. It's been empty for seven months, and my next-door neighbors have also just moved, making me the only tenant on my half of the building; the other half also has two empty units in it because (wait for it) someone bought and left a unit vacant without heat and their pipes burst last winter, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage! The two damaged units have been ripped down to studs and have been on the market for awhile.

Does this all mean that I should just move already and be done with this place? I love it here but it's been a horrible nuisance all winter. Is there something else I can do to make sure the owners keep their heat at a minimum level?
posted by sockermom to Home & Garden (17 answers total)
If it's actually a condo building there could very well be something in the HOA agreement that dictates a minimum heat level for units, whether occupied or not.
posted by LionIndex at 8:34 AM on January 21, 2019 [8 favorites]

I don't know about laws relating to heating but I would probably just move; the lack of safety inherent in being surrounded by unoccupied and poorly maintained apartments would make me pretty anxious. You already know the smoke alarms don't work so your first clue to an electrical fire in a neighboring unit will be when the fire reaches your own home. Your first clue to vermin infestations will be when they infest your own home. etc etc.
posted by poffin boffin at 8:40 AM on January 21, 2019 [19 favorites]

I feel like this is a potential insurance risk. The downstairs unit's homeowners insurance likely would not be happy to know that the unit they are insuring is unoccupied AND uncared for.

I really think that your first step though, needs to be to get involved with the HOA. Hopefully your landlord could write a letter to them that 'allows' you to attend meetings and to speak for your landlord (if he's unable to atttend).

When I lived in a condo, the HOA was the owner of the structural homeowner's insurance, while each unit held insurance more similar to renter's insurance. So maybe the HOA has some ability to ask for a minimum dwelling standard in order to keep their insurance premiums from going up.
posted by hydra77 at 8:44 AM on January 21, 2019

If you want to delve into fighting this battle, or spur your landlord to do so, ask them "What is the grievance process for the condo board? Are you going to pursue it or do I need to?"

Yes, you should probably look to move. At this point, if you have a little money to throw at a brief discussion with a lawyer about not only leaving your lease without penalties but possibly suing for compensation of your costs, it's possible that one stern official letter might be enough to force the landlord to actually take this up with the condo board and get it resolved, or at least get you moved with some compensation.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:48 AM on January 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

Try googling "warranty of habitability," as in the failure of your landlord to maintain your residence in a manner that is fit for human habitation, i.e. a loss of water due to pipes bursting, an inability to adequately heat your apartment - heat and water are the basics of habitability, so there may be legal remedies available, including an injunction that orders your landlord to fix the inhabitable conditions.

Ultimately, it sounds like you need legal advice, and there may be free legal assistance available due to the increasing habitability concerns that may result in a constructive (and likely illegal) eviction. In addition, your local health department may also be able to provide assistance.
posted by Little Dawn at 8:57 AM on January 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

I've rented in a condo building before. With this amount of negligible management of the properties around me, I would just move asap. This is not a safe situation.

Most condo associations have rules governing things like this, for just such a reason as frozen pipes affecting other properties in the building. If the group governing the building you rent in has no such rules, you are screwed. If they do have rules and aren't interested in enforcing them, you are screwed. Even if they have rules and are interested in enforcing them, chances are pretty good it would take a while of back and forth to compel the owner of the condo below you to turn the heat up. For example, there might need to be a plumbing inspection just to determine who owns which damaged pipes (condo owner vs overall association) and therefore there might be haggling back and forth about who would pay for what in the event of damage.

But even if I decided to move out, I would still lodge notice of my displeasure and excessive heating costs at both the owner of the condo you rent, and at the condo association. Document everything, including your heating bill increases. Ask to see a copy of the association bylaws and rules. The owner of your condo should be able to provide you a copy.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 9:01 AM on January 21, 2019 [8 favorites]

Is there a way to contact the strata council / condo board? That's probably your next way to escalate.
posted by JamesBay at 9:03 AM on January 21, 2019

there may be free legal assistance available

Go ahead and ratchet-down your hopes on that one. I'm not licensed in New Jersey, but I'm very active with the pro bono bars in two nearby states and I'm familiar with the national trends, and the short version is that we have a dearth of advocates to represent even indigent tenants who are facing egregious abuses and evictions—so while I personally think this situation is serious and worthy (as many are), it's unlikely to make the cut for free assistance.

Is there something else I can do to make sure the owners keep their heat at a minimum level?

There's a lot you can do to try. As others have said, you can press the issue with whatever property-management resources exist. You can contact the unit's owners directly, introduce yourself, and explain your concerns. You can try governmental resources tasked with enforcing building codes, health codes, etc. You can contact a news outlet and try to get some local coverage. You can sue the unit's owners. And there's also the bucket of extra-legal options I won't delve into.

Does this all mean that I should just move already and be done with this place?

Probably, yes.
posted by cribcage at 9:14 AM on January 21, 2019 [2 favorites]

One of the reasons I refer people to free legal assistance is because my preference is for people to not assume that help is not available - it is true that free help may be limited, but in my experience as a legal aid attorney, legal aids tend to be staffed with chatty people who want to help and likely have ideas for local referrals if they're not able to provide assistance. Habitability cases also have the potential for money damages, as do claims for constructive eviction - based on my experience, and given how quickly landlords tend to fold and pay out thousands of dollars when an attorney shows up on behalf of a tenant, I should have said "free or low-cost legal assistance" may be available.
posted by Little Dawn at 9:36 AM on January 21, 2019 [6 favorites]

Thanks, all. I was afraid the real answer was "move" and indeed it is. I don't have time to get into a legal battle, but I will talk to a lawyer about leaving my lease early due to habitability concerns.

The plumber is in the downstairs unit doing unspecified noisy things and my hopes for having running water today are not high.

The unit is owned by a bank and not a human person so that is making things a lot more difficult.
posted by sockermom at 10:06 AM on January 21, 2019 [2 favorites]

Seconding every part of ImproviseOrDie's comment. The condo association bylaws and rules ought to cover this, and they ought to be enforced. If the association is unwilling or unable to resolve problems like this with bank-owned units, there may not be much you can do.

If your landlord isn't pushing the association for a solution (and I'm thinking daily calls at the least), he is making a remarkably poor decision. He stands to lose a lot more money than you do. Replacing your personal property's a hell of a lot simpler and faster (and your renter's insurance can cover that part without his intervention) than it will be for him to replace ceilings, walls, floors, and fixtures damaged by flooding.

If you have renter's insurance already, double-check what your coverage for personal property replacement and emergency moving expenses might be, and consider increasing your coverage. If you don't, get it, now. It's your best option for protecting yourself until you get out of there, and the premium's likely to be $100-200/year at most. Which is not nothing, but compared to the cost to you if there's a catastrophe, worth it. Your landlord's insurance is unlikely to cover any of your stuff, even if he's willing to make the claim. You can even transfer your policy to your next apartment, so it's not a waste if you move soon.
posted by asperity at 12:30 PM on January 21, 2019 [3 favorites]

He stands to lose a lot more money than you do.

Just a quick note re: lease strategy -- all of this sounds like a financial disaster for your landlord, if multiple empty units aren't being properly maintained. The HOA should be filing a lien against the vacant unit, possible further legal action, there will be all manner of special assessments to fix things once it all goes catastrophic, selling the unit itself may be quite difficult/impossible, etc.

Point being, maybe try to soft-pedal the "impending doom" angle in your discussions, because they may become a lot more money-grabbing (from you) if they realize the trouble they're in. You're conceptually taking money out of their pocket by leaving, so it may be better to not have them realize they will shortly be out even more money.

No reason to make them potentially more difficult to deal with.

Now, to be clear, you should move and you are perfectly justified to break the lease IMHO.
posted by aramaic at 12:52 PM on January 21, 2019 [2 favorites]

Is the plumber still working downstairs? You could ask him to turn up the heat.
posted by Marky at 3:14 PM on January 21, 2019

You might want to drop a call to the local fire marshall. Do you have interior stand pipes for fire lines (we had them on each floor when we had our condo and I'm also in NJ). I bet they're be pretty interested to know that the lines are frozen. How did they resolve the smoke alarms? Please don't tell me they just pulled them.
posted by dancinglamb at 9:09 PM on January 21, 2019 [1 favorite]

Smoke alarms were fully replaced by my landlord, who does not own the unit but who went in with management to fix the situation and paid out of his own pocket to get new alarms there (not terribly expensive but still, it's a cost). So I trust that they are fine. I don't know what an interior stand pipe for a fire line is, but I did call the fire department based on the suggestions in my last ask and they were not helpful at all. There is a standard fire hydrant outside the building.

The plumber turned the heat up to a reasonable maintenance level while he was there. I do have renter's insurance. I also have running water again.

I really like my landlord and he has raised a lot of hell for me with management on all this stuff, repeatedly, so he is not the problem.
posted by sockermom at 7:19 AM on January 22, 2019 [3 favorites]

One thing that might make living there easier for the time being: check over the condo association's rules/bylaws, plus maybe a list of things to look out for with unoccupied units (you've already got a pretty good grounding in fire alarms, plumbing, and heating problems!) and see what you and your landlord can do to mitigate those problems proactively.

I would guess this must be a very small condo development that doesn't have much in the way of professional management, since it kinda sounds like the whole thing's a disaster waiting to happen and they don't seem equipped to do much. Expecting owners of other units to replace fixtures is, well, something.

It's possible to file complaints with the state about condo association problems: NJ Department of Community Affairs, Association Regulation Initiative. They might have some good information about what he should be able to expect from the association board. It's also possible he might be a good candidate for the board if they don't have anyone interested in maintaining the property or ensuring that the management (assuming the board has hired a management company?) is doing what they ought to be.
posted by asperity at 9:12 AM on January 22, 2019

Update: a pipe burst next door (their heat was also off) and destroyed three out of the four apartments. My floor is being replaced and I'm without a home for the foreseeable future but my unit is, somehow, the only one that won't need to be ripped back to the studs after the damage that occurred. I have never seen anything like it.

So, please, leave your heat running if you move out. It's a really expensive mistake for a lot of people if you don't.
posted by sockermom at 12:15 AM on January 23, 2019 [4 favorites]

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