A Tenant's Right To Repairs

Under State Law, all tenants are guaranteed some rights regarding repairs to the rental property

Introduction

Sometimes tenants make excuses for problems with their housing. They may rationalize that the problem is not really a big deal anyway, they are going to move soon, they do not want to make trouble, or the landlord is not making any money anyway. None of these are good reasons to put up with substandard conditions. Landlords are required by law to keep their rental units in good repair. State law ties the duty of tenants to pay rent to the duty of landlords to make repairs.

When you move in, even if you already saw the conditions and signed the lease, you still have the right to get repairs made. Paint is not supposed to be chipping. Your home should be weatherized against the cold and wetness. It is supposed to be clean when you move in. The landlord is obligated to fix leaky pipes, bad drains, faulty locks, etc.

Do not be afraid of angering the landlord by asserting your rights, or afraid the landlord might evict you. Landlords may not evict you during your lease or month-to-month tenancy in retaliation for asserting your rights. In most situations, tenants do not need a lawyer to get the landlord to make repairs.

How To Get Repairs

Notify the Landlord. If something in your house or apartment needs repair, you must inform your landlord. If you request repairs verbally, keep a log of the dates and times and whom you told about the problem. Ideally, you should give the landlord or manager repair requests in writing, stating precisely what the problem is and what you want done about it. List all the repairs that need to be made, if and when you contacted the landlord previously, and any other problems worth mentioning (for example, the landlord or repair person entering without permission, or problems with the lease). ALWAYS KEEP A COPY OF ANYTHING YOU GIVE THE LANDLORD IN WRITING.

If your apartment is run by a manager or management company, you should also try to send a copy of the notice to the person highest up in the company or to the actual owner, since they are ultimately in charge. Your written letters are proof that you requested repairs, and are important if you have to go to court. Always keep a copy of your letters.

Some landlords will make repairs after being notified of the problem. However, when landlords take their time about repairs or actually refuse to do them, it may be time for tenants to prepare to take further action. This may include withholding rent, repairing and deducting, suing for repairs, or organizing other tenants.

Steps to Withholding Rent

State law gives tenants the right to withhold rent if the landlord does not provide adequate maintenance. The 1968 Warranty of Habitability states that a rental unit must be kept in reasonable repair, and must comply with the conditions of all applicable health and safety codes.

In 1972, the decision in a Michigan Court of Appeals case (Rome vs. Walker) made the direct link between a tenant's responsibility to pay rent and a landlord's responsibility to provide repairs. The court ruled that a tenant has a right to a rent abatement (refund) if a landlord:

          • Violated an agreement of the lease
          • Failed to maintain the premises in reasonable repair, and/or
          • Failed to comply with city or state housing codes

Now, under state law, tenants may use any of these claims as defenses if a landlord tries to evict them for non-payment of rent. Rent withholding is a common and effective method of forcing landlords to make repairs and to comply with applicable housing codes.

Do You Need a Lawyer?

If you decide to withhold rent, you do not necessarily need to talk to a lawyer. However, it is a good idea to contact your local tenants' organization or legal services office if you have any questions or concerns, or if the landlord has begun eviction proceedings.

In most cases, withholding rent will quickly and effectively persuade the landlord to make repairs. If your landlord does try to evict you for non-payment of rent, a judge or jury may decide the outcome in court. In court, your defense can be that your rent is not ""unpaid"", but is ""disputed"". Tenants who save their rent money until repairs are completed are exercising their rights. In reality, very few rent withholding cases ever end up in court. Most are settled long before court because landlords know it is more reasonable to reach an agreement on repairs than to risk losing more money by going to court.

If the Conditions of Your Dwelling Force You to Withhold rent, Here is How To Do it:

1.) Collect Evidence. After having notified your landlord in writing of the problems with your unit, you should collect evidence in case your landlord takes you to court. The stronger your case is, the less likely it is that your landlord will take you to court. Here are some examples of evidence you can collect:

        • If you have cockroaches or other bugs, put some in a jar and save them for court. Take pictures of their midnight festivities, and make a note of the day each picture was taken.
        • If you have fungus growing on the bathroom tiles, take pictures of it. If possible, have someone else (an ""objective witness"") take the pictures. Have that person sign, date, and label them with the names of the rooms, the time of day, etc.
        • For heat problems, compare heat readings in various rooms at different times during the day. Keep a record of temperature readings.
        • Contact your local housing inspection department to register a complaint. When registering a complaint, request an inspection of your unit to see if it is up to code. The inspector is required to cite all violations. An inspection report can add to the evidence supporting your withholding, as well as put added pressure on the landlord to make repairs.

2.) Make a log of repair problems and your attempts to get the landlord to fix them. List all your efforts to contact the landlord or manager, including dates and times. For example, note if you called five times and left messages on an answering machine but the landlord never returned the calls. Or if you have gotten the run around about who in the office is responsible for taking your complaint.

Withhold the Rent

If you have contacted the landlord in writing and given her or him reasonable time to fix the problems, you can withhold your rent. Instead of paying the rent when it is due, inform the landlord that you are withholding and state exactly why. Make reference to the previous letter you sent listing all of the problems. It is best to send this notice by certified mail, return receipt requested. Sending letters certified mail or hand delivering copies is not essential, but can help if you think your landlord might lie in court about receiving your letters. If the landlord refuses to accept certified mail, send the notice by regular mail, assume it has been received, and keep the receipt from the certified mail in case you need it as evidence in court.

Write similar letters each time the rent is due until all the repairs have been made to your satisfaction. If you pay rent before all the repairs are completed, the landlord may have no incentive to complete the repairs.

Withholding Vendored Rent Payments

If the Department of Human Services (formely the Family Independence Agency or FIA) pays your rent directly to your landlord, call your case worker and have DHS send your rent money to you so that you can withhold it.

Escrow

Escrow technically means that a third party holds on to your money. You should place your withheld rent in a separate savings account. Banks may charge fees for "official" escrow accounts; placing escrow money in a separate savings account is cheaper and serves the same purpose. Escrowing the rent demonstrates to your landlord or the judge that you have the money and are not just trying to get away with not paying the rent. It also guarantees that the money will be available when the dispute is settled.

If you do go to court, the landlord's attorney can request that you place any future rent payments in a Court Escrow Account. If this happens, you will have to pay into that account starting on the date the judge makes the order. If you fail to make payments into the account, you may lose your jury trial and the judge can move up your court date. The court will not release the money untiil the case is settled or the judge makes a final decision in the case.

Eviction

If you are withholding rent for legitimate reasons, it is unlikely that the landlord will be able to evict you. If the landlord sues to evict you for unpaid rent, you will have a defense or counterclaim explaining why you needed to withhold rent. More than likely, the landlord will start making repairs and/or try to settle with you regarding the repairs and rent payments. It is in the landlord's best interest to settle, rather than risk losing more in court.

Settlement

You do not have to settle for just getting the repairs done. A judge may grant you damages or reduce the rent you owe for the period of time you had to wait for the repairs. Use this information to argue for a better settlement. Remember, do not pay the withheld rent until all of the repairs have been made and until you have reached a written agreement with your landlord.

After all of the repairs have been completed, figure out how much of the withheld money you think you should receive as compensation (or damages), and how much your landlord should receive. There is no formula for how to do this, and it varies from case to case. When you rented the place, you agreed to a specific price for your apartment, assuming everything would generally be in working order. Try to calculate the percentage of what you did and did not receive. Think about how long the landlord knew about the problems, how long it took to make the repairs, how major the repairs were, how much of your home was affected, and how much of an inconvenience it was. For example, were you able to use most of the apartment? Was your inconvenience worth one day's rent, two day's rent, or one month's rent? Did you spend any money making repairs yourself? It is a good strategy to not pay anything until you and your landlord sign a settlement agreement.

Here's an example: You had a leak in the ceiling of your living room, and you contacted the landlord about it three times in one month before it was fixed. In the process, you found out that your landlord knew about the problem before the roof began leaking because it was cited in an inspection report four months earlier. It took the repair people five days to patch the leak, and they got dust everywhere, which you had to clean up. You might argue that you should not have to pay rent for one week, for the five days that you could not use the living room, the extremely long time it took the landlord to fix it, and the time that you spent cleaning the room.

When calculating compensation, consider Michigan's laws on "constructive eviction". "Constructive eviction" is when the landlord, either by acting or failing to act, makes it "impossible" to use all or any part of the rental property for its intended purpose. For example, if a room in your house or apartment never gets above 50 degrees in the winter, your landlord has effectively evicted you from that room by not providing adequate heat. If your landlord disconnects your gas, electric, or water service, or the service is shut off because your landlord didn't pay the bill, you can sue for $200 in compensation or your damages, whichever is greater. Damages could include the cost of physical damage to your property as well as the amount of time it took to solve the problem. Though you would have to sue to actually win damages under this law, you can use it as a guide in negotiating with your landlord.

Security Deposits and Withholding Rent

Your landlord may attempt to take the withheld money out of your security deposit as unpaid rent. You can dispute this with your legitimate, documented reasons for having withheld rent. This dispute should be resolved in Small Claims Court.

Rent Strike

If you have problems getting repairs in your apartment, chances are that other tenants in your building, or tenants living in other property owned or managed by the same landlord, are having similar problems. Withholding rent on an individual basis will often solve the immediate problem, but when everyone withholds their rent and goes on a rent strike, that's when real change can occur.

Repair and Deduct

If your landlord refuses to make the repairs or cannot be reached, one option is to repair the problem yourself and deduct the cost from your rent. This can be helpful with low cost, high frustration problems, such as a burner on the stove that does not work, or in an emergency situation, such as a burst pipe.

Call around to get estimates of what it will cost to repair the problem. Then, choose one of the lower estimates that you feel comfortable with, and go ahead and have the problem fixed. Write your landlord a letter stating when and how you attempted to contact her/him to fix the problem. Include a copy of the bill and explain that you will deduct this amount from your next month's rent.

If this whole process has been a big hassle, you may also want to demand compensation for the time you spent getting the problem fixed. For example, did you miss a day of work in order to stay home and wait for the repair people? How long did you spend calling around getting estimates? If you have any questions about this, contact your local tenants' organization or an attorney.

To learn more about housing rights in Michigan and where to get help:    

Consult the Michigantenants.org website for local housing resources and tenant counseling services. 

Consult the Michiganlegalaid.org website for legal education articles and local service information.

If you received court papers or otherwise need free or low cost legal advice:

This article appears courtesy of the Michigan Tenants Counseling Program.