Tenants have a right to a habitable living space, but state statutes differ on the finer points of what that means.
In every state, however, it’s clear that landlords must provide a sanitary, warm space. It must have a toilet, wash basin, tub or shower, and a kitchen sink. In addition, the structure, plumbing, and electrical systems should conform to applicable building codes.
The implied warranty of habitability requires landlords to:
- maintain the structure and keep the plumbing and electrical systems in working order.
- make major repairs in a timely manner.
- keep the rental safe and free from unsanitary conditions that constitute a health hazard.
The last requirement is arguably the one most open to interpretation.
What constitutes unsanitary conditions?
Some sanitation requirements are uncontroversial. For example, landlords have to provide some method of garbage disposal, even if they ask tenants to pay for it. They must also keep the sewage system in working order. They must disclose the existence of lead paint or asbestos in the unit. Even after disclosure, they could be liable for health problems that result from these pollutants.
Two other issues—mold and rodent control—are not as clear-cut. This is partly because they can arise because of neglect on the part of tenants. It’s important to remember that tenants share responsibility for maintaining hygienic conditions.
A rat or mouse infestation that existed before tenants moved in is clearly the landlord’s problem. However, what about one that begins while tenants are occupying the rental? Perhaps they left food lying around and that attracted the rodents.
Extermination is still ultimate the landlord’s job, but if the problem persists because of poor hygiene on the part of tenants, that can limit the landlord’s responsibility.
Mold is another gray area. Very few of the many mold strains that can grow inside a dwelling are toxic. Those that are can cause extreme discomfort for sensitive people and can amount to a health hazard.
The presence of mold often signifies leaks or other conditions that the landlord should repair. However, it can also be the result of unhygienic practices on the part of a tenant, so the landlord isn’t always responsible for mold remediation.
What amenities make a rental habitable?
Lighting is an essential amenity, and the landlord is responsible for maintaining it. This obligation applies to area lighting, but not necessarily to table lamps, work lights and other specialty lighting. When room lights go out, or any other electrical systems malfunction, the landlord must repair them.
Heating is also essential, and some communities make very specific stipulations about habitable temperatures. It’s important to know the laws in your state, as well as those set by the municipality. San Francisco and New York are two examples of cities that have established their own minimum temperature requirements for rental units.
Air conditioning doesn’t necessarily make a rental habitable, and it’s generally not required, except in a few southern states. If a tenant moves into a rental unit with a working air conditioner, it’s usually incumbent on the landlord to keep it in working order as a contractual obligation. If the rental unit has no air conditioner, the landlord has no obligation to install one unless local laws state otherwise.
Appliances are also a bonus, as far as the law is concerned. The landlord has a contractual obligation to repair appliances that come with the unit, and if the stove or refrigerator breaks, the landlord should repair it. There is no law that forces this on the grounds of habitability, however.
Fire alarms and emergency exits
With the exception of Colorado, most state fire marshals agree that a residential unit isn’t habitable if it doesn’t have smoke alarms. In rental units, it’s the landlord’s responsibility to service them. For landlords who don’t know what type of smoke alarms to use or where to put them, FEMA provides a state-by-state guide.
Every sleeping area in a dwelling unit should have an emergency exit. The International Residential Code sets a minimum egress area of 5.7 square feet. When windows aren’t large enough to function as emergency exits, or in basement bedrooms that lack windows, some other means of egress must exist.
Related: The Long and Short of Smoke Alarms
When a problem arises
Other than simple fixes, such as plunging a toilet or replacing a light bulb, it’s never acceptable for tenants to make repairs on their own. When an emergency, such as a broken toilet or roof leak, makes a rental temporarily uninhabitable, the tenant should contact the landlord or property manager as soon as possible by phone and in writing.
It’s important to give the landlord an opportunity to make repairs before considering drastic measures, such as breaking the lease and moving out.