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Landlord Won't Fix the Heat? Three Legal Options

By Catherine Hodder, Esq. | Last updated on

This post was updated on December 16, 2022.

With a major winter storm affecting 13 million people in the West and heading to the Northeast, those renters stuck with no heat in their homes may wonder if they have any legal recourse.

The answer depends on many factors, specifically, why you're without heat. For example, if there is a power outage due to a storm, it is unlikely that you can sue your power company. For a lawsuit to be successful against a utility, you must show it acted negligently or recklessly. Acts of nature don't amount to negligence. But suppose the utility had untrained employees working on power lines, and they cut power to your house? Then, you may have a claim against the utility for negligence.

However, if your landlord is the reason that you don't have heat, then you do have legal options.

Report Lack of Heat to Your Landlord

You must notify your landlord that you are without heat, and they must respond in a reasonable amount of time to repair your heating system. A reasonable amount of time may differ depending on the situation. For example, a landlord does not have to fix the heat in the summer immediately but may need to respond as soon as possible during freezing temperatures.

As in many landlord-tenant situations, it is wise to do the following:

  • Make a repair request as soon as possible.
  • Keep a record of your written notice and any written communication or text messages.
  • Document the temperature. Take a photo with a thermostat recording the temperature in your apartment several times throughout the day.

Hopefully, that will result in the landlord responding to the needed repairs. If not, you have the following options.

Report Code Violations to Local Authorities

If your landlord refuses to fix the situation, you can report it to local authorities. Many local housing laws require landlords to provide rental units that maintain a minimum temperature, with varying requirements.

For example, Chicago municipal code requires that from Sept. 15 to June 1 you are able to maintain a temperature in your home of at least 68 degrees from 8:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. and 66 degrees for all other times. In New York City, landlords must provide tenants with heat between Oct. 1 and May 31. If the outside temperature is less than 55 degrees between 6:00 a.m. and 10:00 p.m., tenants must be able to maintain an inside temperature of at least 68 degrees.

Cities and municipalities also have rules about landlords providing other essential services such as running water, hot water, gas, and electricity. Failure to do so results in code violations. The code enforcement office may send a building inspector to investigate and fine your landlord for any violations.

While your landlord is responsible for providing those essential services, your lease will outline who pays the utility bills.

Make Repairs Yourself and Deduct the Rent

If your local housing code makes the landlord legally responsible for providing heat and the landlord fails to do so, you can potentially fix it yourself and deduct the cost from your rent money.

However, withholding rent could lead to small claims court or eviction if you mishandle it, so it's best to first inform your landlord in writing about the issue and your intention to make repairs if they don't fix it in a timely manner. If your landlord refuses to make repairs, you can start the necessary repairs and deduct the expense from your monthly rent.

Withhold Rent and Terminate Lease

If your freezing temperature issues remain unresolved, you may be able to withhold rent or terminate your lease. But that may require taking your landlord to court.

Under the implied warranty of habitability, landlords must provide renters with a home suitable for habitation. Under local or state laws, this means providing essential services, including heat.

Landlords must comply with building codes and make repairs when necessary. So if your landlord breaches the implied warranty of habitability and doesn't make repairs within a reasonable time, you may legally be allowed to either stop paying rent until they make repairs or move out and terminate your tenancy. You may need legal help to prevent your landlord from withholding your security deposit for non-payment of rent.

So if you're stuck without heat, your landlord could be in hot water. Seek legal advice from an experienced landlord-tenant lawyer near you.

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