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It’s expensive to bring an outdated electrical system up to code, so landlords tend to follow the adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”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When outdated wiring is dangerous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.

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49 CommentsLeave a Comment

  • Taylor Wright

    I like how you mentioned when wiring can be dangerous if it’s outdated. My brother needs new wiring for his apartment. I’ll be sure to let him know what he can do about it.

    • Dorothy Humphrey

      Can a landlord refuse to come out to fix an electrical problem that can be repaired but the tenant cant have access to the basement where the fuse box is located so that your electricity can be restored through a fuse box locked in a basement?

  • Larry

    Fuse won’t reset though it has in the past without a problem. I live in a rent-controlled apartment in NYC. Who is responsible for the fix: me, the landlord or the co-op? Thanks.


    I rent a downstairs unit and I believe the wiring for the house is all connected to just my unit, when my lights go out, the upstairs unit , their lights go out in certain areas of the home making me believe that my lights are somehow connected to the upstairs unit and I am paying my light bill and they are using my lights. I have tried to contact the property manager to no avail, what steps do I take to get this investigated.

  • electricians Pukekohe

    This article has given me all the research I need to get my lazy landlord to fix the bad electrical system in the building. Now I will definitely use these trips. Thanks! I have also found this resource useful and its related to what you are mentioning.

    • Dorothy Humphrey

      Can a landlord refuse to come out to fix an electrical outage that can be repaired thru a fuse box located in a locked basement, but the tenant cant have access to the locked basement where the fuse box is located so that your electricity can be restored through the fuse box?

      • Kim

        Did you find anything out?? My daughter has same thing going on… it’s almost 109degrees and it’s been 24 hrs.. all good is lost again.. landlord still not there….

  • Cory Goff

    We had the light flickering start in our daughter’s room. They replaced the fan the light fixture was attached to. Soon after, it started again. We left it alone and used a light stand instead. They rent increased our rent and we didn’t want it to increase again. Then the master bedroom started flickering. Next, the hallway next to the master bedroom. We had been living month to month for 5 years now and we’re not sure if they will try to get us to move out if we request a fix. We are paying at least $200 less than some of the other apartments around us. If we create a new lease, I’m positive our rent will go up. I’m not sure if the flicking lights are dangerous or not. I wonder what Florida law says about this situation?

    • B wittenbaugh

      Cory, please contact legal aid in your state. They can try to help you or recommend someone who can. Remember you can talk to a lawyer free! Especially in rent controlled situation . If the place is decent and you want to stay …fight for your rights!! You pay enough rent and it’s your right to be safe!

      Good luck!

  • electric and automation Auckland

    When we live in a rented house we never give priority to maintain our electrical system in fact our landlords don’t even give that much importance to do maintenance work to the electrical system by using the electrician. We need to advice the landlord to hire an expert electrician to do the maintenance work of the electrical system. Thanks to this informative article. Come across and hope you can visit this too to get more information.

  • Fulta frost fan installation

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