Most people know if you are a tenant and don’t pay the rent, your landlord can evict you. But what can a tenant do if the landlord doesn’t make needed repairs? Some people think a tenant can legally withhold the rent whenever a landlord fails to make repairs. Not paying rent can create problems for a tenant in addition to needing repairs to the house or apartment.
What can happen if rent is withheld?
You might be evicted if you don’t pay the rent even if your landlord failed to make repairs. Withholding rent is always risky. You don’t know whether a judge will agree that the problem was so bad that you had the right to withhold the rent. At the same time, it is illegal for a landlord to refuse to make repairs or shut off utilities because a tenant is behind on the rent.
What can you do if your landlord won’t make repairs?
Under Iowa law tenants can do a number of things when repairs are needed to keep the property safe and livable. Some of those remedies may not be an option for tenants who don’t have the money to do the repair or are not able to find other housing. Steps a tenant may take when a landlord fails to make repairs include:
- You can make the repairs yourself and deduct them from your rent;
- You can end the lease and move out; or
- You can call the housing inspector if you live in a city big enough to have one.
I want to make the repairs myself.
This may be an option when:
- The problem impacts the livability of the property as defined by Iowa law (Iowa Code Section 562A.15). Problems could include building code violations that are material to health and safety. It could include a mold problem, a bug problem, or problems with the plumbing system, the electrical system, heating and/or the air conditioning system, a broken appliance, garbage pickup, window repair, or entrance door repair. This would not include things like painting or decorating.
- The problem is not the fault of the tenant, a member of the tenant’s family, or a guest of the tenant.
- The cost of correcting the problem is not more than one month’s rent.
In order to make the repairs yourself, you need to go through the following steps:
- Give your landlord written notice. The tenant first needs to give the landlord a notice. The notice MUST be in writing. Make sure the paper is dated and keep a copy to prove the landlord was notified about the repair. This notice needs to spell out the repairs needed. You should send the notice by regular and certified mail, unless you hand deliver the notice to the landlord and the landlord signs an acknowledgement that s/he received the notice. Keep a copy of the post office receipt to show that you sent it. The notice must be delivered to the landlord at least seven days before the next rental payment is due. However, the law says it takes four days for a notice sent by mail to be delivered. This means if you send it by mail you must actually mail it at least ELEVEN days before the rent is due. The notice tells the landlord that the tenant will deduct the cost of the repair from the next month’s rent.
- Make the Repairs. It may be best to have someone else do the work, even if you could do it yourself. If you do the work yourself, you must be sure to keep careful records of the time you spent doing the repair as well as receipts for the materials you bought. Keep all receipts for anything you buy. Remember that if the repairs are made and you deduct them from the rent, the landlord still might file an eviction action against you for nonpayment of rent. A judge who determines the repairs were unnecessary or the cost of the repairs was unreasonable could still decide to evict you.
- Deduct the cost from your next months’ rent. You will want to give the landlord a copy of your receipts but keep the originals for yourself. The cost must be less than one month’s rent. The repair should be completed as soon as you can. The repair must be completed before you get a nonpayment notice from the landlord.
Special Rule for Landlord’s Failure to Provide Essential Services. If the problem has to do with an essential service like heat, hot water or water, you may immediately obtain repairs and deduct the cost from the next month’s rent payment. You still need to send the landlord a written notice describing the problem and what you are going to do to correct it. But you do not need to send the notice 7 days before the rent is due.
I want to end the lease.
Again, you can only end your lease if the problem affects the livability of the property and if you are not at fault in causing the problem.
In order to end your lease because your landlord isn’t making repairs, you need to go through the following steps:
- Give your landlord written notice. The notice must say what repairs are needed. In the notice, the tenant tells the landlord that unless the needed repairs are made within seven days, the tenant will end the lease and move. For example, the notice could say:
“My roof is leaking. If you do not repair this problem in 7 days, the lease will end on October 1.”
Again, be sure to send this notice by regular and certified mail, unless the landlord will sign an acknowledgement that s/he received the notice. The law says it takes four days for a notice sent by mail to be delivered. This means if you send it by mail you must mail it at least ELEVEN days before the rent is due. Keep a copy in case you need to go to court.
Move out if the landlord doesn’t make the repairs. If the landlord does not make the needed repairs within the seven days, the tenant must move out by the date specified in the notice. Remember if you are not out by the date specified on the notice, the landlord could start eviction procedures against you. If you choose this method, it is important to have somewhere to go if the landlord does not make the necessary repairs. If the landlord does make the repairs within the 7 days, the lease continues and you cannot move.
What if I can’t move or make the repairs myself?
Some repairs are too big for a tenant to handle. For example, if the home has no heat in the winter because the heating system needs to be replaced, most tenants cannot afford to pay for such a repair. Some repair persons may not want to get involved with big repairs without the permission of the owner. The cost to fix some major problems would be more than one month’s rent. What can you do?
One possibility is calling the rental housing inspector if there is one in your city. Many cities have a rental housing code and inspectors to enforce it. If there is a serious violation, the city inspector may order the landlord to fix it quickly. A landlord who does not fix it may be taken to court or fined by the city. If the city inspector finds very bad housing problems, the inspector may say the rental unit is unfit to live in. In those cases, the tenants may have to move out right away.
If none of these will work for you, there may be other things you can try but you will probably need the help of a lawyer. It may be possible to force your landlord to make repairs by filing a lawsuit. If the judge decides the landlord has not lived up to the duty to provide essential services or to keep the apartment in a livable condition and the tenants are hurt by it, the judge may order the landlord to make the repairs.
Under all these methods of repair, the landlord may not retaliate or try to get back at the tenant by raising the rent, trying to evict the tenant, or reducing services. If the landlord tries anything like that within one year of when the tenant made a complaint about repairs, the law assumes the landlord is trying to get back at the tenant. Then the landlord would have to show some other reason for taking the action. However, if a tenant has not paid the rent, the law doesn’t assume the landlord is retaliating if he or she tries to evict the tenant.
A tenant with problems involving an eviction or other landlord/tenant law question should see an attorney for advice.
Iowa Legal Aid provides help to low-income Iowans.
To apply for help from Iowa Legal Aid:
- Call 800-532-1275.
- Iowans age 60 and over, call 800-992-8161.
- Apply online at iowalegalaid.org
If Iowa Legal Aid cannot help, look for an attorney on “Find A Lawyer” on the Iowa State Bar Association website iowabar.org. A private attorney there can talk with you for a fee of $25 for 30 minutes of legal advice.
*As you read this information, remember this article is not a substitute for legal advice.