How do I get my landlord to make basic repairs?
February 5, 2004 6:03 PM   Subscribe

Landlord issues! I'm on a month-to-month lease in a duplex and I'm having a terribe time getting my landlord to make basic repairs. I've sent him a letter asking for repairs to be made within 14 days, but he hasn't gotten back to me yet. What do I do next? [More inside]

I've asked him to fix so many things over the last few months, and I'm not ready to move yet. In Minnesota, the next step is to take the landlord to conciliation court and sue for rent abatement. The MN Attorney General has a helpful handbook on this issue, but I'm looking for some feedback - has anyone else been through this?

I think the repairs I've requested are reasonable - what do you think? I've asked him to fix the front door to the two duplex units, which has a splintered frame and does not lock.
My front door is hung so far off-plumb that it's impossible for me to weatherstrip it so it won't leak cold Minnesota air.

The shower's grout is rotten and the shower itself leaks into the kitchen below, and the ceiling is in danger of falling down.

The garage door does not work in cold weather (a real rarity here in MN) so I can't use my garage.

My neighbors smoke weed and burn incense constantly next door, and the smell somehow comes (through the ventilation?) into my unit. I think that either we share 1 furnace and ventilation system, but I'm not sure. Is there something that says that a landlord should keep separate ventilation systems between units?

I am willing to take the landlord to court, because I have contacted him numerous times with no response. I'm just nervous that his failure to respond means that he is going to try and evict me. What should I bring to court to protect myself and make my case?

Thanks for all your help!
posted by Coffeemate to Home & Garden (13 answers total)
I hate to be the prophet of doom, but renting on a month to month basis limits your options. Stir up too much trouble and he's simply going to ask you to leave.

You may be able to force a remedy for specific code violations in court (or via the code enforcement folks in your jurisdiction) but it's not going to be a long term solution and I would expect an eviction notice on your way out of the courtroom. Without a lease it's a losing battle, the landlord has all the power and simply put, if he decides your no longer a desirable tenant your history. He'll probably have to give a 30 day notice (this varies by jurisdiction) that you can contest and drag out another thirty days or so, but in the end, your packing.

Yeah, he's a scumbag slumlord. However, not that it's going to do you any good, the best you can hope for is to bring code enforcement down on his sorry ass and prevent him from renting sub-standard units in the future. If he's sensible, he may decide throwing some money into repairs beats being shut down entirely. Not that this will necessarily prevent him from evicting you -- next time, get a lease.
posted by cedar at 7:05 PM on February 5, 2004

Your location may have ordinances that permit you to have the work done by a third party and deduct the cost from your rent, depending on if the problem prevents you from having reasonable use and enjoyment of your apartment or if it presents a danger to your health or well being. Unfortunately, rental law and regulation varies tremendously from city to city, from little-to-none to stringently controlled, so you'll really be best off finding a local renters union or renters rights organization to find out what your real options are.
posted by majick at 7:44 PM on February 5, 2004

Your legal aid office almost certainly has information about your rights. Meanwhile, you're living in less than ideal circumstances. Get reasonable estimates of the work to be performed on the doors, garage door and shower. Focus on the front door safety issue 1st. Are any of these repairs things that you can do on your own? Ask the landlord if you can do the work/get the work done and deduct it from your rent.
Check out and Minnesota Legal Services Coalition Offices
Disclaimer: I'm a landlord.
posted by theora55 at 7:51 PM on February 5, 2004

And as to your neighbors, if the skunk is truly bothering you, you might want to mention to them that you can smell their fumes. Considering that smoking ganja is -- right or wrong -- illegal, they'll probably be willing to take a few more precautions. Not that I think you should narc them out unless they're being truly obnoxious about it, but they may very well choose to be more prudent in the future.
posted by majick at 7:54 PM on February 5, 2004

actually, if he evicts you after you take him to court, it's considered retaliatory eviction, and he can get in even more trouble. the time period in which you are protected after going to court varies by state.
posted by reverendX at 8:01 PM on February 5, 2004

Make sure to keep copies of all your correspondance.

The leaking shower is troubling -- water brings rot, and floors have been known to collapse because of it.
posted by o2b at 8:10 PM on February 5, 2004

Thanks for all the help, guys.

Thanks reverendX. Minnesota does indeed have a 90-day anti-retaliation statute, so I will have at least 3 months from the court date to get ready to move. I graduate from college in May and I was hoping to stay where I am until then.

I have had the city inspector come inspect the property and he is as disgusted as I am. Adding to the complication is that the landlord did not have the required city license to rent the property. I need to find out if that invalidates the terms of the lease (I had a 1-year lease and now it is continuing month-to-month).

As to the neighbors and their illegal activities, I have asked them to take it outside and they just deny it's happening at all. They are unreasonable and I have called the police 5 times since Christmas because I could hear them smacking each other around. It's ugly.

Besides keeping records of my correspondence, what else should I be doing? I'm wondering how to illustrate the smell, for example, to a judge. What pictures should I take? Are digital better? What is the best way to demonstrate how unresponsive the landlord is?

Thanks again, guys. Your support is a lifesaver!
posted by Coffeemate at 8:25 PM on February 5, 2004

I'm not a lawyer, but I have successfully fought with landlords and won. The first thing is to take a look at your rights under your state's landlord tenant act. I am currently in a dispute with our landlord -- I seem to have very bad luck in this regard -- and a good understanding of both your rights and responsibilities will prove to be an invaluable aid. Our state (Arizona) allows tenants to make certain types of repairs if the landlord refuses to respond. In this case, you can just submit the bill and deduct the cost from your rent. That's AZ, though, and there is a procedure you have to follow.

Also, you may be able to enlist the help of a local tenant advocacy group...

Out of curiosity, though, if you're month to month, why not just move?
posted by ph00dz at 8:26 PM on February 5, 2004

The only thing keeping me here is that I'm graduating from college in May and I'm not sure where I'm going to be working. I live in the Minneapolis/St. Paul suburbs, and I don't want to get locked into a lease at one end of the cities and then have to commute miles and miles every day.

I'm just stressing out because I have so much up in the air and I don't want to have to deal with this.
posted by Coffeemate at 8:39 PM on February 5, 2004

Disclaimer: I am not a lawyer, but I have been trained in a renter's rights program and staffed a renter's rights legal information helpline for several years.

First off, take photos of absolutely every part of the property. If you have a digital camera, take several hundred clear photos. Not only will it serve to bolster any court case you may take against him, it'll also help if he tries to stiff you for damages when you move out.

Second, find a tenant's union, and join them (it'll probably be pretty cheap, since low-income tenants tend to get stiffed the most). They'll give you a whole lot of fun pamphlets telling you about your legal rights and how to make your landlord behave like a decent human being.

Third, put all of your repair requests in writing and save a copy.

* You describe a lot of code violations, which (in addition to your landlord hopefully being fined) means that you can move out when you please without giving him much notice, since it's a safety issue. If he opts to sue you, you'll do just fine in court if you take lots of photos and keep a copy of the building inspector's report.

* Depending on your local statutes, you can withhold rent until the repairs are made, especially with regards to safety concerns like a non-functional front door. Contact a lawyer before you do this, and store the rent in a separate bank account.

* Send your landlord a letter saying something along the lines of "I have attempted to contact you regarding these repairs for the last . Minnesota law requires you to keep rentals in a livable condition (Minn. Stat 504B.161)". Sometimes landlords think they can just push you around and letting them know that you know your rights will make them fulfill their end of the bargain.

Ultimately, though, you need to decide how much effort you want to spend over the next few months on this. Personally, I suggest that you call a legal aid office and get them to walk you through all of your options with regards to suing him. But that can take a lot of time and energy, so if you're just wrapping up school, it might make more sense to just deal for a few months and hope for better luck the next time.

One very important thing to remember when you do move out is that your landlord must either return your full security deposit within 30 days (in Minnesota, specifically, it's 21) after moving out, or provide you with an itemized description of the damages (and you should always shop around and verify that he got a competetive bid for the repair work, and sue him if he didn't). If he doesn't, or it takes him a few days more, take him to small claims court and you'll wind up with 2 or 2 1/2 times the deposit.

I'm not sure if that helped any.

posted by cmonkey at 12:13 AM on February 6, 2004

There's a non-profit in Hennepin County (since you're in MN) called HOME Line. They offer free telephone consultations with attorneys. (612) 933-0017
posted by eastlakestandard at 7:18 AM on February 6, 2004

Assuming that you have already considered and rejected the idea of contacting a lawyer, you should consult Nolo Press' Landlords and Tenants law center. It has a section on repairs. Nolo also sells books on this subject; any self-respecting public library should stock them.

I don't know what the law is where you live, but in most parts of the country you are entitled to make the repairs yourself and deduct the cost of the repairs from the rent. (This works only if the repair was the type that the landlord is legally required to make. Your laws on that question may vary).

But, as others have noted, your landlord can decide to end your month-to-month lease whenever he wants. Note that this is different from "evicting" you; that word usually refers to a landlord kicking you out in the middle of a lease period. It is possible that whatever local anti-retaliation statutes you have would not apply.

But seriously, this is about your home. Do not rely on advice from a bunch of anonymous know-it-alls like me. Budget $100 or so and call a lawyer.
posted by profwhat at 9:17 AM on February 6, 2004

IANAL but I have also fought with landlords and won, often. I recommend not only calling a lawyer, if you know one, but also getting in touch with the proper state and city authorities. In my situation, the furnace was spewing carbon monixide into the house, so I couldn't use it. The landlord wouldn't make repairs and brought over a space heater. This was in Seattle in February so it was cold but not deadly cold. I complained to the city, they *condemned* the place and I moved out but my landlord had to pay me moving expenses which were high because I didn't have a lot of income. Lessons I learned:

- if you have nothing to lose, playing hardball is okay, otherwise it might spell trouble. You are bound by laws and rules and so is the landlord. If you can keep it on that level and not resort to "he is an asshole" or "this is so unfair" you'll come out better in the end, in my opinion. Become robot tenant and just keep at the landlord. Write many letters, manke many phone calls, don't just wait for a fix because they tell you one is on the way. Ask for dates, names of contractors, promises.
- keep religious track of all communication you have with the landlord. don't be suprised if you are required to ask for repairs via registered letter before you can start taking action like not paying rent
- seriously weigh the options of fighting with the landlord versus taking a loss and moving, however you determine the values of those options. Sometimes it's better to break the lease and then deal with small claims to get a deposit returned [IF you have covered your bases and that is an option] than it is to hate where you live.

Also, in a general sense, evictions suck but they also take a lot of time on your landlord's part. I'd worry less about coming home and finding your stuff on the sidewalk [but make contingency plans if you think it might go that way] than about having your stress levels effect your health.
posted by jessamyn at 12:47 PM on February 6, 2004

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