Your rights as a tenant vary depending on where you rent; you won’t have all the same rights living in New York City as you would in Chicago or Seattle. Some of your rights will be similar wherever you go, yet others will be vastly different. However, your right to a habitable unit remains fairly consistent regardless of where you live. All states, other than Arkansas, have decided through the courts or legislation that landlords must provide a certain basic level of conditions in their rental properties. In other words, whether you rent a single-family home or apartment, it needs to be livable.

The Implied Warranty of Habitability

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The expectation that landlords must provide livable rental units is legally known as the Implied Warranty of Habitability. The “implied” part means you may not find this in writing, yet it is inherent within your situation as a property renter. Your lease does not have to say this warranty exists to make it true. There does not have to be a statute or local ordinance requiring habitability, although some states or counties have more explicitly written it into law, too. As for a “warranty,” that is a promise or guarantee. The most complicated part of this implicit promise between you and your landlord is what “habitability” entails.

Defining Habitability

If you’re having issues in your apartment or house, your landlord is unresponsive, and you believe the problem makes the unit unlivable, then you should speak with a landlord-tenant attorney about the definition of habitability in your state or county. There are a few elements usually found under a state’s view of the implied warranty of habitability.

Your unit should:

  • Comply with all building and housing codes
  • Comply with all health and safety codes
  • Have safe common areas, including hallways, elevators, and stairs
  • Offer protection from the elements, including full walls, windows, and a roof
  • Include a locking door
  • Have working electricity
  • Have heat, when necessary
  • Have working plumbing
  • Have hot water
  • Have trash receptacles
  • Not have a rodent or vermin infestation

There are also differences between states and counties, which could matter to your situation. You can find California’s implied warranty of habitability defined in California Civil Code Sections 1941 and 1941.1(a) and in Civil Jury Instruction 4320. Ohio’s implied warranty of habitability is found in Ohio Revised Code Section 5321.04. If you look closely, Ohio’s code makes no mention of a unit being weatherproof, its roof, or its walls (though that is not to say Ohio does not require landlords to maintain units that protect the tenants from the elements).

Another common difference among states is how they handle mold. Some states or counties have statutes and ordinances regarding mold, though many do not. California, Indiana, Maryland, Virginia, New Jersey, and Texas have laws regarding mold indoors. For example, the Code of Virginia Section 55-248.13 states landlords must maintain their units in a condition that prevents the growth and accumulation of mold and to promptly respond to tenant’s complaints. Washington Revised Code Section 59.18.060 includes mold, although it only specifically requires landlords to provide tenants with information regarding mitigating mold in units.

Needing Repairs on a Rental Unit

If there is a problem with your rental unit, first review your state, county, and city’s rental laws. Fortunately, a great deal of this information can easily be found online.

Typically, you should notify your landlord of the problem, and then the landlord should correct the problem in a reasonable amount of time. The time your landlord has to respond may be dictated by state law or a local ordinance. Usually, only fundamental issues, like the loss of hot water or broken lock, require immediate attention.

“A landlord’s duty is typically to deliver the premises in a condition where the utilities and services work, hot and cold running water; heat; air conditioning; electricity; and to keep the premises in compliance with building codes as well as to keep the common areas in a reasonably clean and safe condition,” says Don Miner, a real estate attorney and the director of Fennemore Craig Attorneys in Arizona.

If your landlord ignores your request, the next step is to contact your landlord regarding the need for repairs in writing (if you did not do that the first time). You can usually find advice on how to deal with your landlord through a state, city, or county-level organization like Washington LawHelp, Illinois Legal Aid Online, and Equal Justice Wyoming.

If your landlord does not remedy the situation in a reasonable amount of time after written notice, review your next set of options. You may be able to repair the issue yourself or by hiring someone, and then you may deduct the amount from rent. Or, you may be able to give notice and move out without fear of owing rent or losing your deposit. However, do not act until you are sure it is lawful to do so in your area. Both of these options, if they are allowed in your area, must be enacted according to legal protocol. If you do something that does not comply with the law, you could spend money that will not be reimbursed or you could owe the landlord rent. It is best to speak with a landlord-tenant attorney when your landlord refuses to make important repairs.

When does a landlord’s actions cross the line to harassment?

If your landlord is intentionally not making repairs, this may give you greater legal options or even a cause of action, which means you have a basis for suing.

A landlord’s number one priority is to treat all his or her tenants equally, regardless of their race or gender, says Miner. “Two, is to treat them within the confines of normal human courtesy. And the third is to not make threats, that I will increase your rent, I will turn off your power, if you don’t do this. That’s different if the tenants not paying rent, of course, but to make those threats when the tenant is performing would be harassment.”

If the intended purpose is to force you to move out, you may be facing an unlawful eviction. If the failure to repair is in retaliation for making a local or state-level compliant, then the landlord’s behavior is unlawful. If you believe it is for another purpose, then it may constitute landlord harassment. However, whether your landlord’s conduct gives you other legal options, such as moving out or filing a lawsuit, depends on your state and local law. If your landlord is intentionally harassing you, trying to make you uncomfortable or unwelcome in your unit, or retaliating against you, your best course of action is to speak with a landlord-tenant attorney