How to get your landlord to fix a bad electrical system

Written on August 31, 2017 by

Bad Electrical WiringAlmost every state (except Arkansas) has a statute that requires landlords to provide habitable housing with a working electrical system. However, the statutes don’t require the electrical system to meet current code. It just has to work.

The California Civil Code uses language typical to most state laws. It says the landlord must supply the following:

“Electrical lighting, with wiring and electrical equipment that conformed with applicable law at the time of installation, maintained in good working order.”

It’s expensive to bring an outdated electrical system up to code, so landlords tend to follow the adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” It’s a different story, though, when old wiring creates a hazard and not just an inconvenience. In that case, the landlord has to do something to make the rental safe.

When outdated wiring is dangerous

Although safety standards have improved over the years, older electrical systems aren’t always hazardous. A combination of age and wear can turn what was a safe circuit into a dangerous one, though. Watch for these situations:

Ungrounded wiring

The lack of system grounding was a nuisance in the early 20th century. When the electrical code began to require a ground rod and a third circuit wire in the 1960s, people got fewer shocks, and the number of electrical fires went down. Grounding also protects sensitive equipment from power surges.

Renters living in an older home with an ungrounded electrical system might experience some of the following problems:

  • Flickering lights
  • Shocks when touching a wall or lamp switch
  • Frequent blown fuses (houses with ungrounded wiring usually have fuseboxes, not breaker panels)
  • Overheated outlets and switches that can melt or ignite
  • Power surges

Flickering lights, power surges, and blown fuses can cause headaches, but they aren’t hazards. Shocks and overheating outlets are.

Aluminum wiring

Electrical systems installed in the 1950s and early 1970s may include aluminum wiring, which is a known hazard. Junctions at receptacles and switches can overheat, and there’s a real possibility of one of them melting or bursting into flames. Strange smells, smoke and sparks, and flickering current are three signs of aluminum wiring.

Worn out receptacles

Sockets that can’t hold a plug are especially hazardous for children and pets who might make contact with the exposed prongs. Not only that, but anything touching a prong, such as a curtain, could ignite. Speaking of receptacles, the current code requires GFCI outlets in kitchens, bathrooms, laundry rooms, and outside. Conventional outlets, when installed in these locations, are dangerous according to current standards.

Exposed wires

Wires sticking out from a wall or an unused electrical box are obviously dangerous, but sometimes you can’t see them. They may protrude from an unfinished ceiling in the basement or the garage, or they may be partially hidden by a wall. That can make them even more dangerous.

How to get the electrical system fixed

When an electrical problem creates a hazard, you as a renter, must contact the landlord or property manager before doing anything else. In most cases, a phone call is all it should take to get a response, but if none is forthcoming, it’s important to repeat the request in writing and to save a copy. That preserves a record of the date of the request.

Statutes give the landlord a reasonable time to respond—as much as 30 days. However, when a hazard exists, the time could be shorter—perhaps only a day or two, depending on the nature of the problem. If the situation isn’t corrected, renters in all but a few states have the option to hire someone to make the repair and deduct the cost from the rent. Renters may also have the option to withhold rent until the landlord makes repairs.

Repair and deduct

Forty-three states have repair and deduct laws on the books. Here are the ones that don’t:

  • Alabama
  • Arkansas
  • Georgia
  • Idaho
  • Indiana
  • North Carolina
  • West Virginia

Each state sets its own guidelines, so it’s important to be familiar with the laws that apply in your state. Repair and deduct statutes cover things like:

  • Qualifying problems
  • Type of notice
  • Amount of time the landlord has to respond
  • Maximum deductible amount

In California, for example, renters can’t deduct more than a month’s rent at a time and can’t use the repair and deduct option more than twice in a calendar year. The option is not available if renters or their guests crated the hazard through misuse or neglect. This is true in most states.

Withhold rent

You can’t withhold rent as a matter of right; this option is available only if your state or municipality specifically allows it. Before withholding rent, you must verify that the problem is serious and not just bothersome.

You must also contact the landlord and allow a reasonable amount of time for a response—usually 30 days unless the problem is urgent. You can withhold an amount commensurate with the problem. For example, if an outlet has become dangerous, you could withhold the amount of money needed to replace it, which would be about $200.

Keep the money safe, because when the problem is fixed, you’ll have to pay it to the landlord.

Check the lease

When renting an older house or apartment with outdated wiring, it’s a good idea for landlords to include a lease clause that covers the proper use of the electrical system and stipulates the landlord’s and renter’s responsibilities.

Renters should remember to read the lease carefully and keep in mind that outdated wiring isn’t illegal as long as it’s working. The law calls for action only when an electrical problem creates a bona fide hazard.

Get our free newsletter

Join 200,000+ landlords

  • ​Tips to increase income
  • Time-saving techniques
  • ​Powerful tools & resources

11 CommentsLeave a Comment

  • Janet Jones

    Who to contact when the landlord doesn’t want to fix electrical problems?

  • Brittany Taber

    Who to contact when the landlord doesn’t want to fix electrical problems

  • Chris Deziel

    It depends on the nature of the problem. If it’s merely an inconvenience, such as an outlet that doesn’t work, you probably don’t have any recourse other than to fix it yourself and, if the state allows it, deduct the cost of the repair from the rent. If it’s a safety issue, such as uncovered wires in a place that people go, report it to the county or municipality, which will then require the landlord to make the repair. Be sure to let the landlord know that you intend to do this before you actually do it, though.

    • MARGARET

      My power shuts of at least once a day, yet I do not even own a tv nor any large electric items. Also, my bedroom light doesnt just flicker, it shuts off for a few seconds and turns back on. I reported it and electric guy came by and said I need a new box and it cost alot of money. My property management was notified by mainenance but they never told me they were gong yo fix it. Now my daughts light fixure blew out and has black on outside. What can I do now?

  • Nate

    I have had exposed wires from a vent a hood that my land lord took out before I resigned the lease the 2nd time… it’s been a year and she just won’t do it….. now I’ve just resigned the lease…. the only matter of subject stand in the lease that won’t be repaired is the refrigerator. ……. please what can I do?

  • april smith

    Numerous random electrical outlets & lights shut off randomly throughout the day and night. Everytime we check the breaker panel none of them are blown or switched over. We flip them over once or twice and the outlets work again, for awhile and it begins all over again. My husband is on electric oxygen at night so this is a real hazard. Is fire a concern also? We’ve told the landlord. He says hes working in it but i dont think he realizes the health impact. My husband is terminal with a lung disease.

  • Jeremiah Ray

    The main power box is broken. There is no power at all coming out of it. There no power to our RV at all

  • lydia smith

    it appears renters have no recourse or advocacy. my electricity is not up to code, yet the law states it just has to work? despite brown outs and blown fuses? which agency should i contact? termites, rodents and open walls due to unfinished work by landlord is actually legal?

    which agency can be contacted when a low income, but not subsidized tenant needs help or just to report the landlord> and will it help?

    or is the tenant just royally screwed?

  • sharon wilson

    I would like to know what I can do about my electrical outlet in my front room none of them work its been months since I informed the landlord. also I have a black mold growing around the wall borders. I need to know how to tell with this situation and also need an Inspector to come check the house for me

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

 characters available. Be short, sweet and to the point.