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What Is Material Noncompliance?

Anyone who has rented an apartment understands that a rental agreement comes with responsibility. By signing a lease, tenants agree to pay rent promptly and comply with all other terms stated in the contract. But landlords also have certain obligations, particularly concerning habitability standards.

A dwelling unit must be safe to live in when the tenancy is in effect. Residential landlords must also abide by local and state housing codes (see State Property & Real Estate Laws for a directory). When a landlord fails to meet these standards despite reasonable requests by the tenant, the tenant may sue them for material noncompliance.

This article covers the basics of material noncompliance, which is essentially a breach of contract in the context of landlord-tenant law. For related information, see FindLaw subsections on:

Habitability & Housing Codes

A property is considered habitable if it has adequate:

  • Heating and water
  • Electricity
  • General cleanliness
  • Structural safety

Legally speaking, habitability is enforced as an implied warranty. The implied warranty of habitability means the landlord has a duty to maintain livable standards for the rental property. These vary by state and locality but generally require reasonable upkeep of real property while rental occupancy continues.

While most state laws requiring certain habitability standards are similar, some states provide extra protections for tenants. Some states have codified these protections under civil codes, while others have passed various landlord and tenant acts as individual laws to protect tenants. For example, New York law may require lobby attendant services, intercoms, and elevator mirrors for buildings of certain size and occupancy specifications. Most buildings will also be subject to laws requiring:

  • Smoke detectors
  • Protection from lead paint
  • Locking doors and windows

Additionally, landlords must comply with applicable housing codes. These typically address things such as:

  • Ventilation and air conditioning
  • Electrical wiring and plumbing
  • Earthquake safety

Some states require additional safety mechanisms, such as deadbolts and mandates to change locks between tenants.

Dealing With Material Noncompliance

Suppose your landlord has not conducted necessary repairs or maintenance promptly. The lease agreement or local laws typically require you to provide written notice and reasonable time for your landlord to fix a problem. After receipt of the notice of issues, a landlord must make a good-faith effort to investigate and resolve deficiencies.

Of course, not every issue is a priority. For instance, suppose you give notice that you found abandoned personal property in the common areas. It might be acceptable for your landlord to take an entire month to get rid of it if it's not an emergency. Even their omission might not necessarily be a violation as long as the property isn't endangering tenant safety or obstructing passageways.

But in some situations, a landlord must act quickly after receiving notice about a problem. For example, suppose that your water stops working and you give immediate, one-day notice to your landlord. The terms of the lease might not address utility problems, but it doesn't matter.

The law will usually compel a landlord to provide running water unless a tenant has contributed to causing the problem. Because water is essential to habitation, even nonpayment of rent can't justify a landlord's denial of the service. Unless the utility company directly causes your water issue, your landlord has to address the problem to the extent they reasonably can.

Taking Legal Action Against a Landlord

Sometimes, just informing the landlord that you understand your rights and their responsibilities will encourage action. If not, see your state and local laws to determine which options are available in your area. For example, certain laws might allow you to:

  • Pay less month-to-month rent or withhold all rent due (sometimes in escrow) until the repair is complete
  • Hire an outside party to do the work and subtract the cost from your next rent payment
  • Contact the local authorities if the problem violates a state or local housing code
  • Vacate the property and call for the termination of the rental agreement
  • Consider filing a constructive eviction action and/or material noncompliance lawsuit

Because it's expensive, time-consuming, and emotionally difficult, a lawsuit might be an option of last resort. But if you're pushed into taking such action against your landlord, you'll want to get a court order in your favor. That means you'll want to gather evidence specifying:

  • Your actual damages, such as lost income and expenses
  • Documentation of your monthly rent and security deposit
  • Your reasonable attorney's fees incurred in litigation

In court, you can ask the judge or jury to award you these expenses if they rule in your favor. You may even get reimbursement for some of your rent and damage deposit. A landlord found to have acted in bad faith could be liable to you beyond the value of the lease.

A Lawyer Can Help

If your situation remains unresolved, you might need to pressure your landlord. Take action if you believe the property owner or management company is in material noncompliance.

landlord-tenant lawyer can help you enforce your legal rights before you go to court. They may write letters and provide legal advice that will help you avoid litigation altogether. If a lawsuit becomes necessary, having an experienced attorney on your side significantly increases your chances of success.

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