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It’s expensive to bring an outdated electrical system up to code, so landlords tend to follow the adage, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”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When outdated wiring is dangerous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