What is a "reasonable" timeframe for the landlord to fix my heat?
March 9, 2023 6:59 PM   Subscribe

The elderly HVAC system in my rented house shut down on Sunday and my landlord is dragging his feet on getting it fixed. Our municipality specifies that such repairs must be done in a "reasonable" timeframe, but what does that mean in concrete terms in this context?

I need a sanity check first since I have no patience with this incompetent fool. (This is not the first time he's acted like this, but it is the most serious.) He did send a technician on Monday, who said the whole unit needs to be replaced, but now he's saying he is in the process of getting a second quote, and maybe repair is possible, blah blah blah. I've waited around for three days thinking that I would need to let people into the basement, but nobody has shown up, including him. When I contact him, he blows me off with vague responses and sob stories. Persuasion isn't working so I will have to explore other options.

I do understand that it is not always easy to get contractors, and a new HVAC system is a sizeable expense so wanting more than one quote is understandable. We do have decent backup heating that is keeping the place somewhat livable, but my electricity bill is going to be through the roof. I'm also worried about the quality of any repairs he makes to the natural gas system.

Am I wrong to think this should have been fixed already, and that it's up to him to just get on with it and find someone to do it if his preferred people are not available? What is a "reasonable" timeline and when should I involve the City and/or the landlord/tenant authorities?

Any other tips/advice anyone has would be welcome.
posted by rpfields to Home & Garden (16 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The answer is going to depend on a few things: what the weather’s like where you are, whether he knows you’ve got backup heat, and what the turnaround time for repairs is. If you’re in Australia and it’s the end of summer right now, that’ll be much less urgent than if you were in northern Finland. If it’s late winter and the temperature is still near freezing, and he doesn’t know you have backup, then yeah, he should be moving faster. That’s not a comfort issue; it’s a safety issue. And not just for you - if your pipes freeze, that’s *his* problem. Finally, from talking to other people, it does seem like it’s taking a while to find contractors pretty much everywhere. Try calling one yourself. If you can find someone willing to come out same day, that’s good evidence that he’s just not trying very hard.

As with any landlord-tenant issue, though, consult a lawyer before taking any action.
posted by kevinbelt at 7:31 PM on March 9 [2 favorites]

You likely have a local tenant's rights group/organization who can answer this way better than anyone in MetaFilter because housing laws can very pretty dramatically across cities, counties, and other jurisdictions. Googling your city + tenant rights or your county + tenant rights will likely pull up a hotline that you can call for specific information for free or a low cost.

Here a tenant rights organization is definitely the first stop. It is a group of well informed people who can spout the local ordinances and give relevant information quickly. This is without doing things like having letters written, or reporting people or contacting your landlord, but will be "you should expect things to happen within 7 days, or well, we've tried to enforce this and found it unenforceable so your out of luck, or if you pay for the repair yourself, this is how you get reimbursed." The actual legal stuff and action can take a bit longer to access (or pay for depending on income level and other factors), but the information on what to expect and next steps is a free phone call.

Good luck!
posted by AlexiaSky at 7:44 PM on March 9 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks! In case the answers to your questions make a difference to other responses:

-I'm in Ontario, Canada. Temperatures are hovering just above and below freezing.

-he does know I have backup heat. He keeps saying he wants to bring more heaters but so far has not brought them over. I think he's hoping that I will do the work of getting them, but I'm not inclined to. Inside temp is about 60F/15C so no risk to the pipes.

-I did get a contractor to come out the same day, thinking that it might be a broken pilot light or other quick fix, but I'm not going to front a new HVAC, so we never got into the question of how long that would take.

It's sounding like I will be asking for a firm date to resolve this tomorrow and when I don't get one, consulting a lawyer on Monday.
posted by rpfields at 7:46 PM on March 9 [1 favorite]

Best answer: We had a similar problem a few years ago with our rental property (we were the landlords, not tenants). Let me describe it briefly, just to hopefully give you some sympathy. Our steam boiler broke with no warning (we had been doing the recommended maintenance and everything). It took half a week to a week, and maybe longer, to get plumbers out for estimates (they wouldn't come sooner), and then we had to chase them up for the actual firm estimate. The prices were around $6500 and north of that. Given how difficult the steam heat was get to serviced, and given that we could put ductless mini-splits into the place instead for $10,000, after some consideration we decided to go with the mini-splits instead. We had planned to do the mini-splits on the order of 5-10 years, but given that the steam boiler had broken, we decided to bite the bullet and get them installed at that point. The whole thing probably took probably two weeks to resolve.

It was around Thanksgiving, and cold out, so not an ideal time for all this to be occurring, especially in a rental apartment. We (the landlord) purchased probably 1 space heater per major room (bedrooms, living room, etc.), and had them sent to the tenants at their apartment (all at our expense, not theirs, of course). We also gave them something like $100-150 off their rent, to cover the increased utility bills (it didn't actually cost that much more, but we wanted to be generous to acknowledge the hassle of the situation). We discussed the situation with our tenants, presented these ideas, and we all felt that this solution was fair so we agreed to it. We had a good relationship with them, which made it easier.

I guess what I'm saying is that it sounds like your landlord is the Bitch Eating Crackers for you at this point, in that everything they do that concerns you feels outrageous. The timeframe doesn't sound on the face of it to be unreasonable to me, having real-world experience with this specific situation. Having the heating system totally go bust is a very major thing, and probably a $5000-10,000+ investment for your landlord, and ideally last at least a couple of decades. It's a big decision, especially if they're thinking of making changes to the setup. I would expect a week at the very least to fix things, and maybe 2-3 weeks. It's unfortunate, but these kinds of things happen on occasion. If you've never owned, you should know that - especially now! - it's really hard to get people to come out for estimates, and then to actually get the estimates, and then to schedule the work. Sometimes there are supply-chain issues with getting the heater in stock, so there can be delays there. I simply don't think that the idea that it should be done already in a few business days to be reasonable for this sort of job (a clogged toilet, on the other hand - yes). For us, at least, it's not so much a case of using our "preferred" people because they're cheaper; rather, we have a shortlist of electricians, plumbers, etc. with whom we have had good experiences in the past, who are well reviewed, who guarantee their work, who are reasonably available, and whose prices are somewhat reasonable. I really don't like to go with folks not on my list because I want to avoid getting bad work done and having more problems later that is going to inconvenience the tenants further. There are a lot of incompetent people out there. It's in the best interest of my tenants as well as my own best interest to get repairs done by reliable and competent people.

I think it's possible for you and the landlord to reach a situation you're both happy with. I think it's reasonable to give the landlord at least a week or two to get this fixed: as I said above, it might not be able to happen sooner even if he/she wanted it to, and there might be other considerations, like changes to the system, that are reasonable to be on the table with a major investment like a property. But you have valid concerns too that need to be addressed. I would encourage you to think about what kind of compromises would make you feel better about the situation. How good is the backup heating? If it's adequate but you're just afraid of the bill, I think it would be reasonable to have your landlord pay the difference between your typical electric bill and your electric bill(s) while this issue is ongoing. If the backup heating isn't adequate, having your landlord supply a few extra heaters seems reasonable to me. Perhaps there are other things that the landlord could do that you can think of that would make it easier.
posted by ClaireBear at 7:47 PM on March 9 [8 favorites]

Best answer: rpfields: I just want to say that I'm very sympathetic to your frustration, but I probably wouldn't go in with quite so aggressive an angle. I would probably call your landlord and ask for an update, and ask questions to try to ascertain at which stage the process is. He or she likely has less control than you think about the timeline: as I said, it's very hard to get plumbers, HVAC folks, etc., and it's all on their schedule, not the landlord's (as well as ordering time for parts or new machines). I would also discuss with your landlord what compromises could be made that would make you feel decent about this situation. I think that he or she needs to supply heaters ASAP to get able to get the interior temperature up to 65-70 degrees, as well as to pay the difference in the bill. I think you should request tomorrow that that happen immediately, assuming the fix isn't coming in the next day or two. What I'm saying is that I think you're going to have more success in resolving this situation by having some imagination and sympathy for the situation from your landlord's point of view, and by pushing for a compromise that lets both of you get what you need (you: a warm apartment; your landlord: reasonable work that is done on a timeframe that is in the realm of possibility as per the limitations of your local HVAC people and supply chains). I think both of these things are possible with some charitable assumption of good motives, some discussion, and some creativity.
posted by ClaireBear at 7:57 PM on March 9 [2 favorites]

Get a firm date for the HVAC, request that he produce heaters pronto (as in tomorrow, oil based rads are cheap at Canadian Tire), and that he pay the difference in your heating bill. Not sure what city you’re in but in Toronto, landlords are legally obliged to heat their units to a minimum of 21C between Sept and Jan. The LTBO is backed up to like 8-9 months I hear. So maybe a lawyer’s letter will light a fire under his butt.
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:00 PM on March 9 [2 favorites]

Should be “Sept to June” above, sorry.

But if you’re confident he’ll only pay for a cheap and shoddy (and dangerous) job on natural gas… that’s difficult, no way I’m aware of to really encourage him to do the right thing (by his own property :/ never mind your safety… and I hear you on that, last time I rented the LL was fine with rats destroying his wiring). I would suggest moving if you’re as concerned as I would be, but that’s obviously nearly impossible right now. (Or is it?)
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:14 PM on March 9 [1 favorite]

I had an issue similar to this one, no backup hear and my landlord left us for about two weeks with only two space heaters for our whole apartment. We lived but it sucked. My absolute biggest regret about the situation is that I didn't document the conditions (temperature and timeline) adequately so that when we were later forced to take legal action against him, we could sue for hardship during the heat debacle as well.

I don't know anything about housing law in Canada but we would have been owed full or partial refund of rent for that time if we had documentation, and I suspect you are as well. This situation is not reasonable, in theory a large part of what you pay him rent for is maintaining the property and he is not doing the bare minimum of his job so you should not have to pay him.
posted by Summers at 8:48 PM on March 9 [2 favorites]

I live in not-Canada, but we had an issue with our furnace and it took three weeks to get someone to come out and take a look. But I was able to get that date scheduled immediately - so he should at the very least be able to tell you what day he has scheduled the other repair person to come, the name of the company and what time they will be arriving. If he can't, he's a liar and you should call a lawyer, because he isn't doing anything.
posted by Toddles at 9:17 PM on March 9 [2 favorites]

Seems like the simplest thing is to make this the landlord's problem, rather than your problem. If the backup heating truly is adequate, make the totally justified and reasonable demand that the landlord pay the difference between your average March bill and this March's bill, turn the heat up to your typical level, and stop worrying about what he/she does with the main HVAC. If they refuse, well, more useful ammunition for your subsequent action.
posted by exutima at 10:27 PM on March 9 [8 favorites]

Best answer: Its fine not to trust landlords and I would encourage you not to. If you think he's incompenent you're probably right. Get in touch with local tenant organisations to find out what your rights are and then try to get your bill reduced to its normal level, get extra heaters paid for and put stuff in writing. Adapt how much emotional labour you do to simultaneously let the landlord feel they're a decent person based on how vengeful you think they are and how much power they have over you.
posted by mosswinter at 1:27 AM on March 10 [6 favorites]

Absolutely call your municipality to lodge a complaint immediately. Toronto says you should call if you don't have 21C for more than 24 hours. You probably aren't in Toronto, but that's a good starting point. This is the kind of thing that municipalities tend to take pretty seriously in Canada. Make sure you point out that your backup heat is not able to maintain higher than 15C.

I would not wait until Monday to get this ball rolling.
posted by ssg at 5:12 AM on March 10 [2 favorites]

This PDF from the Ontario Landlord and Tenant Board says on page 2 that a landlord must maintain 20C if they supply heat, absent higher municipal regulation.
posted by ssg at 5:27 AM on March 10 [3 favorites]

Costly repairs that need to be made immediately is the risk one takes when they're a landlord. No sympathy from me. If he can't hack it, he shouldn't be a landlord.

Call your Landlord and Tenant Board and ask "What is a reasonable timeline?" so you're informed. Make your decision based on that info. At the very least, call your landlord every day to put a bug up his butt about this. It's completely unreasonable that you would be without heat during winter in Ontario.

Per the doc that ssg linked, do not withhold rent. It looks like you can file a form with the Landlord and Tenant Board if repairs are not made, not made quickly, or done poorly. Also it looks like you need to make your maintenance request to the landlord in writing so be sure to do that also.
posted by pumpkinlatte at 6:03 AM on March 10 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks everybody for all your help. All your answers were useful and I marked a couple as "best answer" when they offered information or perspective that I was lacking. I particularly appreciated Clairebear's views as a landlord. It sounds like your tenants are very lucky to have you. When I rented out a condo I used to own a few years ago, I tried to manage things in a similar way. I think that's part of why this guy annoys me so much. If it weren't for the fact that I have an elderly dog who would be really discombobulated by a move, I'd be long gone.

Anyway, miracle of miracles, the dude did show up on very short notice late this afternoon, accompanied by a seemingly competent contractor, and they managed to get the heat going. A new furnace is on order and should be here in a week or so. I will get a separate inspection when the final work is done.

On the specific question of reasonable timelines, I thought I'd lay out the results of my research in case it helps future Askers: since I did have emergency heat, the landlord-tenant branch of the city thought two weeks was a reasonable timeline for a solution, or, under extenuating circumstances, a specific plan. If I had filed a complaint, the landlord would have gotten 21 days to fix the issue or face major fines The bylaw person strongly encouraged me to file by the end of next week at the latest, so the guy didn't try to get away with leaving the system unrepaired until fall.
posted by rpfields at 6:16 PM on March 10 [3 favorites]

(Just wanted to thank you, rpfields, for your follow-up - Ask posts are often really useful for other folks in the same situation, so I'm guessing your updates will be very helpful for anyone else in a similar situation in the future.)
posted by kristi at 4:23 PM on March 11 [2 favorites]

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