If the issue causes flooding, unsanitary, or unsafe conditions, then the landlord must typically fix it. Landlords are only required to fix minor issues (leaky or broken faucets or toilets) if required by state or local law or if the lease states the landlord must fix it.
Landlord’s Duty to Fix
State and local laws determine whether the landlord needs to fix more minor issues like dripping faucets. If local regulations don’t exist, landlords are not required to fix minor leaks or dripping faucets, unless they cause a bigger issue or it’s promised in the lease (unlikely). Landlords are required to fix any problems that would make the place unsafe or uninhabitable in every state except for Arkansas. The rules vary slightly by state, but if there’s flooding, water damage, or unsanitary conditions, the landlord generally breaches their duty to provide you with a safe and habitable place (the “implied warranty of habitability”). Leaky or broken faucets generally don’t rise to the level of making a place unlivable under the law, unless they cause flooding or other issues. If the implied warranty of habitability covers the problem and the landlord fails to fix the problem in a reasonable time, the landlord must have been notified and are given a reasonable time to fix it before the landlord is in violation of the lease. Furthermore, the problem must not have been caused by the tenant in activities outside of normal and wear.
Responsibility for the Increased Water Bill
A broken pipe or toilet may result in a much higher water bill. If the tenant caused the break or leak, then the tenant is responsible.
As the first measure, tenants and landlords should work together to hopefully ensure neither party is responsible. Sometimes, a utility company will reduce or excuse abnormally high water bills if it can be shown that the water bill was primarily the result of a leak. Both landlords and tenants should save receipts showing the leak was fixed and when it was fixed. Pictures and other documentation may help. Often, payment to the water company is required while the appeal is made to reduce and excuse the bill, and the amount can be quite high. Typically, the landlord covers the costs or reimburses the tenant while they wait to hear back.
If the utility company does not excuse the bill, whether the landlord is responsible depends primarily on when they were notified. If tenants are experiencing a leak, they should notify the landlord immediately and keep documentation. Most leases require tenants to promptly notify landlords of any repairs or issues that need addressing. If the tenant failed to report the problem, the tenant is responsible. If the tenant notified the landlord late, the landlord is only responsible for the costs after they knew (or they should have known) of the problem.
Beyond that, whether the landlord or tenant is responsible depends heavily on jurisdiction and circumstances. Look to your local laws, and consider an independent mediator to resolve the problem quickly.
Deduct and Repair
About two-thirds of states allow tenants to deduct the costs of repairs from their rent when certain conditions are met. Usually, the state includes detailed rules about the types of repairs the tenant can make, how much they can deduct for the repairs, how long the tenant must wait before making the repair, and the proper notice the tenant must give to the landlord. If a tenant fails to follow the proper procedures for a deduct and repair, they may be legally treated as not paying a portion of their rent and thus, may be evicted. Tenants should consult with a local lawyer before engaging in a deduct and repair remedy, or at least fully read the law and procedure about the requirements.
About 80% of states allow tenants to withhold rent until essential repairs are made. Typically, this will not cover minor issues like a dripping faucet or pipe. The states that offer this remedy tend to have restrictions about the types of issues that tenants can withhold rent for, the amount they can withhold, details about the timing and content of the notice the tenant sends the landlord, and sometimes requires the rent be placed in an escrow account. If a tenant fails to meet these requirements, the tenant may be successfully evicted. Therefore, tenants should consult with a local lawyer before engaging in rent withholding, or at least fully read the process and requirements.
Break the Lease
If the landlord has broken a promise in the lease, the tenant is free to break their end of the agreement too. The tenant can move out and is entitled to get their deposit back. Alternatively, the tenant can go to court and seek a reduction in rent or a court order requiring the landlord to fix the problem. In every state except Arkansas, leases include an “implied warranty of habitability” which requires apartments to be safe and livable. It exists as a tenant right even if there is no written lease, it’s not mentioned in the lease, or even despite a lease that says the landlord is not responsible. The exact details of what needs to be fixed to keep the apartment safe and livable vary heavily by state, but the key factors are health and safety (not comfort, annoyance, or quality). Most states require apartments to provide hot and cold water.
Unless the tenant caused the problem, the landlord cannot charge tenants for these repairs. Tenants are free to break a lease if the landlord doesn’t fix the problem in a reasonable time (some jurisdictions specify exact time periods by which landlords must fix issues). In breaking the lease and moving out, tenants are entitled to their deposit back, but in practicality, it may prove difficult to get the landlord to hand back the money. The tenant’s next landlord may discover the incident in the tenant’s rental history, so tenants also should be prepared with documentation and the story of why it was necessary to move out.
State and Local Laws
Laws differ heavily by state, county, and city. Use RenterPeace to see more specific laws for to a given apartment and to see comments from people in your area.
Documenting the Problem
For most problems, tenants should document their issues, notify their landlord (document this too!), and stay informed about their rights. Renterpeace is a free website that helps with each step of this process. Tenants use RenterPeace to more easily see applicable laws, track their problems, and much more. There's a reason RenterPeace was selected "Best of" legal apps for both Android and iOS. It also includes household management tools, like a chore manager and bill tracker. Try it - you don't even to login first.
Using Property Management
To stay updated and organized about the problems in their apartments, landlords should use a property management system. Many are expensive or have high setup fees, but using RenterPeace for landlords is free. It's complete with legal compliance tips targeted to their problems, maintenance tracking, tenant screening, money-saving grant information, and tenant chat. It makes managing properties easier and staying updated about status of rental properties a breeze. Try it today.