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What Is the Implied Warranty of Habitability?

The implied warranty of habitability is an understood promise that a rental unit will be suitable for living. States have varying standards on what it takes for a dwelling unit to be considered fit for human habitation. But, there are common items that most courts across the United States consider important. Knowing the minimum safety, repairs, and maintenance requirements is important to any party entering a lease agreement.

As a landlord, figuring out what you must fix can sometimes be confusing. A renter's knowledge of tenant's rights can pressure a landlord to act quickly. Suppose your tenant complains there's no hot water in the rental property. Most states would consider this a necessary repair, and your failure to address it could put you at odds with local housing codes. Here are some frequently asked questions (FAQs) about habitability to help you avoid putting the rental agreement in jeopardy.

How is habitability implied?

In most of the 50 states, there is an implied promise read into residential leases. It is an understanding that a rental property will be suitable for its desired purpose. To renters, this means that the home will be suitable for inhabiting. This promise requires that the landlord maintain substantial compliance with any applicable building codes and make repairs as necessary.

The point of the warranty is not to oppress the landlord by requiring exact compliance with codes. Instead, it only requires substantial compliance, which means minor and temporary issues will not:

  • Amount to a breach of that warranty
  • Excuse the renter from paying the full month's rent money

For instance, a leaky faucet won't mean the rental premises are uninhabitable. But, the landlord may still have a duty to address the problem eventually.

What are a landlord's responsibilities for habitability?

As a landlord, you must promptly respond to your tenant's complaints. You must make a good-faith effort toward finding sufficient resolutions to legitimate problems. For instance, don't expect to get away with duct-taping a busted pipe and thinking it's good enough. Here is a list of items that most states would consider to be a breach of the warranty of habitability:

  • Unsafe common areas that deny tenants reasonable access to and from their units
  • Malfunctioning or missing carbon monoxide detectors or smoke detectors
  • The presence of exposed lead paint or other harmful chemicals
  • Significant water damage or structural damage
  • Vermin infestations, such as bug or rodent infestations
  • Lack of deadbolt locks or window guards

Who decides whether a repair is necessary for habitability?

States have different standards for what constitutes a breach of the warranty of habitability. Moreover, local regulations, such as city ordinances, might create more requirements. Finally, certain items can be written into a lease agreement requiring the landlord's action.

For instance, some hot localities might require functional air conditioning. In other places, the law will only consider missing or broken AC a breach if it's written into the rental agreement.

Is the warranty of habitability unfair to property owners?

Public policy and the implied warranty of habitability dictate that landlords should not profit from maintaining uninhabitable properties. A substantial departure from the building code, such as a lack of heat or running water, would justify the renter taking further action, such as withholding the rent or breaking the lease.

Can a landlord raise rent to cover the cost of repairs?

A landlord may only raise rent to the extent it is permissible by law. Some cities have rent control protections that prevent you from raising your rent by more than a specific yearly limit. Additionally, rent protections may be imposed statewide by your state's legislature. Some jurisdictions limit rent increases to the rate of inflation or even less.

As a landlord, you may make a business decision to raise rent for various reasons. The costs of living reasonably increase for everyone, including tenants and landlords, as a natural result of inflation. But, in almost all cases involving residential property, you must check your local and state laws for limits. In every case, you must honor the monthly rent amount called by the lease agreement until the lease term expires.

How soon does a landlord have to fix a problem?

If you're a landlord, the law requires you to fix your property within a reasonable time after receiving notice of the problem. Court decisions vary on what is considered reasonable because everyone's circumstances are unique. Compare and contrast the following two examples:

Suppose a tenant with a mobility disability gives you written notice that they can't enter their property because a lift is broken. In this scenario, addressing the problem may be considered reasonable if it's done in a matter of hours. But as days go by, a judge or jury might find it increasingly egregious that a landlord denied their disabled tenant the right to enter their real estate.

Now, let's say the same tenant is complaining that the paint in the elevator is chipping off. They're upset that it's making the common areas look ugly. While it may be so, old paint doesn't affect the livability of the premises. Occupancy remains unaffected. The only exception would be if the paint contained harmful chemicals that were being exposed as it was chipping away.

What are my remedies if a landlord breaches the warranty?

As a landlord, you'll face legal consequences if you fail to make your property habitable. Assuming a tenant promptly reports the problem, the ball is in your court. If you've sat on the problem after being duly notified, your tenant may legally start:

  • Withholding rent (rent abatement)
  • Making rent deductions for self-repair
  • A lawsuit against you for your constructive eviction of the tenant (as in, your failure to make the rental premises habitable amounts to wrongful eviction)

If you won't make your real property livable for your tenant, the least you can expect is their nonpayment of rent. As a landlord, you should avoid the possibility of your tenant withholding rent. Part of the rent, equal to the diminution in value of the apartment from the code violation, could be placed into a separate bank account. If the full amount of rent has been paid, a tenant might be able to recover part of the paid rent as overpayment due to the violations.

But things can get much worse than that. You could get reported to your state's health department. If the problem is bad enough, the whole place could end up getting condemned by building inspectors. You won't be able to rent it again until the situation is fixed and the building gets inspected again.

Get Legal Advice on Habitability Issues

Whether you're a landlord or a tenant, you might have specific questions about the implied warranty of habitability. The best way to address these inquiries is through the legal services of an experienced landlord-tenant attorney. A qualified lawyer can advise you on your specific situation and address your problems before they get more expensive.

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