At some point in the course of a military career, most service members (or their families) will find themselves renting a home or living on base versus buying. This means interacting with some form of leasing agency, whether that is a private sole-proprietor landlord or a property management company.
But what happens when something breaks, as it will inevitably do – and often, at the worst possible time? A quick understanding of both tenant and landlord responsibilities will set the stage on what a tenant can reasonably expect when repairs are needed, and what your options are as a tenant if you’re struggling to get a landlord to make repairs.
How to Deal with an Unresponsive Landlord
Basic Tenant Rights and Responsibilities
As a renter, you are entitled to several rights and responsibilities that both you and your landlord are agreeing to when you enter a rental lease.
A good lease will thoroughly detail expected tenant behavior, to include:
- Payment of rent, due dates, grace periods, and late fees.
- Right to tenant privacy, and notification requirements for entry.
- Leases often include both a move-in and move-out addendum checklist to protect both parties.
- In the ideal situation, a good lease will also dictate how repairs should be reported to the landlord, and an emergency maintenance or contact number, if ever needed.
Although it may not be spelled out to the letter, tenants should be aware that common household maintenance items (such as changing interior light bulbs, getting a locksmith if you lock yourself out, mowing the lawn – provided lawn care is not included, keeping walkways and doorways clear) are the tenant’s responsibility. Additionally, as a tenant, if your actions cause damage, you need to be prepared to pay for those damages, i.e., a pet chews off a baseboard, you clog a toilet by disposing of personal hygiene items into it, a child breaks a window.
Major Landlord Responsibilities
Major landlord (or property manager) responsibilities are to keep the rental property in a safe and habitable condition. This includes:
- Maintaining all vital services, such as working plumbing
- Access to heat, electricity, and running water
- Proper trash receptacles
- Providing secure entry (such as locking doors and windows)
- Addressing any repairs that would jeopardize health and safety.
Additionally, a landlord must adhere to applicable Landlord/Tenant laws (such as notice to entry, non-discrimination in leasing, etc.). The landlord is obligated to uphold their end of a rental lease, as it is a legally binding contract. Any items or services included in the lease should be kept in working condition or maintained.
But What Happens When There Is a Problem?
Inevitably, as a renter, something is bound to break. Problems tend to arise in these areas:
- Urgency of the repair. If a problem threatens the life, health, or safety of tenants, these problems require immediate attention, and landlords are subject to severe recourse if not immediately addressed.
- Did the tenant cause the incident? (If so, some landlords will argue you’re required to fix it, and regrettably, refuse to offer help of any kind.)
- Is the issue simply wear and tear? Or does it necessitate a repair/replacement? For example, a drafty window isn’t a life and death situation, but when you’re the tenant paying the heating bill, you can bet you’ll want the landlord to offer some kind of repair.
- Common Maintenance Areas (or CAM). An often sticky area in trying to secure repairs as a Tenant, are repairs needed in common, or shared areas with other Tenants, such as a condo or apartment. Ideally, CAM items that are the Landlord (HOA or management) responsibility are clearly identified in a lease agreement, for Tenant-shared areas such as hallways, parking garages, lobbies, or entryways.
Scour Your Rental Contract
If you have encountered a problem that needs repaired, is there anything in your lease that addresses the situation?
Items and services specifically included in the lease is one of your strongest pieces of evidence to get your landlord to fix a problem. (It’s also a powerful lesson learned for future rentals to get everything thoroughly documented in a rental lease.)
For example, if you have a landlord that is refusing to get the dishwasher fixed or the automatic garage door repaired, you have a big bargaining chip if these items are included in the lease as part of the amenities included with the property. An inoperable dishwasher or a garage door would not be a safety violation nor make a rental unit uninhabitable, but if these amenities/appliances are included in your lease, you’re entitled to have them as you’re paying for them. If the amenities are not functional, your landlord is in breach of the lease, and you are within your tenant rights to insist upon repairs.
Repair Request Strategies with a Landlord
As a Tenant, first protect yourself by taking thorough photos or videos of the repair needed. This evidence can be critical if you need to escalate the problem or provide proof of the severity of the issue.
- Report the repair first, as dictated by your lease. That may be through an electronic work order system.
- Send a personal follow-up email (or phone call) to verify the request was received, and try to get an estimated timeframe of when the issue will be fixed. Email is best, as this offers a “paper trail” of both notification of the repair and the landlord’s response.
State law often dictates for a “reasonable time” for the repair to be made. But, if sufficient time has passed, and multiple requests are going nowhere, as a tenant, you need to consider if it’s time to pursue further action.
Tenant Recourse When a Landlord Absolutely Refuses to Cooperate
Unfortunately, for whatever reason, you find that a landlord or property manager simply will not fix anything. If calls, emails, and work order requests have gone into a black hole, or the landlord simply ignores the problem or outright claims they are not liable for the repair, you still have rights and recourse as a tenant.
Tenant Rights and Recourses
- Are you dealing with a BIG problem, or a SMALL one? Violations of Federal or State-level Landlord/Tenant Law, or failure to maintain all vital services, such as working plumbing, access to heat, electricity, running water, and proper trash receptacles are BIG issues, and provide significant recourse, such as withholding rent, legal action, or breaking the lease (without penalty) to move.
- Withhold rent. If your landlord refuses to keep the unit livable, in most situations tenants are allowed to withhold rent. However, most states will strictly govern this measure, and you may even need a court order to legally withhold rent and not risk eviction.
- Repair and deduct. Over half the states in the U.S. allow for a “repair and deduct” option if a landlord has not made repairs after a reasonable timeframe and request. As a tenant, you make the repair yourself, and either deduct the cost from your rent or request a reimbursement. This can be a good solution for a smaller problem.
- Legal action. If you have endured unsafe living conditions, discrimination, or sustained monetary damages (such as having to flee to a hotel for temporary lodging), legal action can be warranted.
Resource Options When You Need Outside Help
If you’ve reached the point of truly needing to reach out for outside help, there are several options.
Just be mindful that any agency or office you reach out to will need to know what level of problem you’re encountering, what you’ve done to try and address the problem, and what evidence you have (your lease, written email and mail correspondence that you’ve tried to address the problem to no avail, photo documentation, etc.), so they can best help you.
- Closest base housing office to report and possibly blacklist the landlord/company.
- JAG and base legal office, although they do not typically handle civil matters or disputes, they may be able to direct you to an applicable real estate or civil contracts attorney who can.
- Your county or local city government usually has public offices for a Department of Housing or a Housing Authority, either of which you can easily look up and contact. Often, governments require a landlord or property manager to maintain a current Rental License to operate the property, and if they are in violation of this licensing agreement, you now have the backing of the local government to assist you.
- City Code Enforcement Division, or City Health Inspector. Problems with faulty electricity or building construction can be reported and investigated to your local code enforcement division. Pests (those not due to tenant neglect) or health issues, such as mold growing in ventilation shafts, can be reported and pursued by the local health inspection department.
- Local, City, or State Real Estate Licensure Board. If your property is being managed through a property management company, often these managers must also hold current real estate licenses to operate as a leasing manager. If the offense is egregious enough, the Real Estate Board can investigate, reprimand, or even revoke a licensee.
- Local or national media. Unfortunately, even military members living in base provided, privatized housing have experienced hazards and housing so fundamentally flawed it deserves to be broadcast at the highest levels.
It can certainly be frustrating to deal with a difficult or unresponsive landlord or management company. But, of all the challenges that accompany a military lifestyle, one of our community’s greatest strengths is that you are not alone when help is needed.
Get actionable resources and advice from real estate experts and other military families, including checklists to use when looking for a rental, military clauses, rental form directories, and more at MilitaryByOwner!
By Kristi Adams
Kristi Adams is a proud Air Force spouse and served on active duty herself as a Space and Missile officer. She is an Associate Professor for the University of Maryland’s School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation and holds a Master of Real Estate Development degree from the university. She and her husband have profitably owned rental properties since 2004. When Kristi isn’t writing about real estate, she’s writing about travel and has been published in several books and national publications. Find more of her writing at Kristi Adams Media.