View Full Version : Landlord/tenant law: No hot water for 5 days, legal to deduct from rent?
Spectre of Pithecanthropus
05-03-2005, 01:01 PM
Landlords, tenants, and property lawyers please weigh in.
I opened a thread recently complaining that there was no hot water in my apartment, or in any apartment in the building. ON that day I flirted briefly with the notion of going to a hotel, but we decided we could live without hot water for one day. After all, s*** happens. But one day became two, then three, then four. The hot water was restored briefly, very late the fourth day, but then failed again in the morning of the fifth day. It wasn't permanently restored until that afternoon. Meanwhile, by the third day we were pretty rank and did decide to go to a hotel for one night. Quite justifiably, IMHO. I myself could have gotten by, because I belong to a gym and usually shower there during the week. But my wife does not have that option. Our neighbors took similar steps, some going to friends and relatives' houses, and some to hotels.
As a result, along with many of our neighbors, we are considering witholding partial rent. California standards of habitability include among other things, hot running water, and all leases have express or implied provisions that rental units be habitable. This is hot water we're talking about here, not fixing the gym, pool or jacuzzi (all of which also haven't been functional for two years). Five frigging days without reliable hot water. A cursory perusal of the relevant information in Findlaw.org suggests that we indeed have the right withold part of the rent. Our landlord naturally refutes this, and has notified everyone that full rent is expected, and any partially witheld payments will be referred to their legal department.
We think we're entitled to a per diem deduction for the five days, plus our hotel bill. One day without hot water, maybe two, would be understandable. Five days is not.
What say you? Can we as tenants be literally walked over like this?
Spectre of Pithecanthropus
05-03-2005, 01:04 PM
I should point out, in all fairness, that the owners contend that since the failure initially occurred on a Saturday, they were unable to get the needed parts and boilers until Monday. We counter that their plumbing supplier was open Saturday from 7am until noon, and many tenants had already reported the problem by 9:00.
05-03-2005, 01:15 PM
IANAL, but I can tell you from my own experience in New Jersey that withholding rent was a bad decision on my part. I was taken to court, and although the court ruled that the landlord did, in fact, still owe me more money than I owed to him, the judge admonished me for withholding rent. As I had already vacated the premises by the time the court date came around, a judgement of possession was made in his favor, even though he was also ordered to pay me my money. Finding another place to rent with a judgment of possession against me proved exceedingly difficult. I was led to believe by the court that if I had not already vacated, they would have ordered me to pay the full rent. I was told that if I felt the landlord owed me money, my only recourse was to take him to court for the amount, but that I did not have the right to not pay my rent.
05-03-2005, 01:17 PM
See 'withholding rent' here on the California Department of Consumer Affairs website (http://www.dca.ca.gov/legal/landlordbook/repairs.htm):5. If the landlord doesn't make the needed repairs within a reasonable period of time, the tenant can withhold some or all of the rent. The tenant can continue to withhold the rent until the landlord makes the repairs.
How much rent can the tenant withhold? While the law does not provide a clear test for determining how much rent is reasonable for the tenant to withhold, judges in rent withholding cases often use one of the following methods. These methods are offered as examples.
Percentage reduction in rent: The percentage of the rental unit that is uninhabitable is determined, and the rent is reduced by that amount. For example, if one of a rental unit's four rooms is uninhabitable, the tenant could withhold 25 percent of the rent. The tenant would have to pay the remaining 75 percent of the rent. Most courts use this method.
Reasonable value of rental unit: The value of the rental unit in its defective state is determined, and the tenant withholds that amount. The tenant would have to pay the difference between the rental unit's fair market value (usually the rent stated in the rental agreement or lease) and the rental unit's value in its defective state.131
6. The tenant should save the withheld rent money and not spend it. The tenant should expect to have to pay the landlord some or all of the withheld rent once the repairs have been made.
If the tenant withholds rent, the tenant should put the withheld rent money into a special bank account (called an escrow account). The tenant should notify the landlord in writing that the withheld rent money has been deposited in the escrow account, and explain why. The are lots of exceptions and potential outcomes from such an action, so you would be wise to consult an attorney, which I am not.
05-03-2005, 01:30 PM
Well, you could 'withhold rent", but I don't think it is the right way to go- at least to start. Start with asking for a reasonable settlement. Then, if that doesn't work, send a certified letter. Meanwhile, contact your city or county and see if they have (like in San Jose) Mediation.
Spectre of Pithecanthropus
05-03-2005, 01:30 PM
Does anyone know how to set up an escrow account? Can I go to my credit union and ask for one?
05-03-2005, 01:52 PM
Spectre, meet LAFLA (http://www.lafla.org/clientservices/housing/houinfo.asp), the Legal Aid Foundation of Los Angeles (and very good people, IMHO). Their site may be useful, or you could call them. I don't know if you qualify for their services, but they may be able to refer you to someone else (i.e., a city department or something) who can give you the answers you need. I assume you're in or near LA. Good luck.
Spectre of Pithecanthropus
05-03-2005, 03:02 PM
Thanks for the link. I probably wouldn't qualify for Legal Aid, assuming that they're geared toward low-income tenants. The site does contain some useful information, but most of what I'm seeing on the Net deals with getting repairs done that still need to be made. IN this case, the repair has been done, but the tenants were subjected to five days of substandard housing and/or whatever expenses they incurred to redress that condition.
05-03-2005, 03:23 PM
The problem that you will run into is that most of the statutes and rules are made to assist tenants in getting their landlord to [I]make repairs. If the tenant makes the repairs, or as in this case, the issue is one of deprivation of utilities, the procedure does not really tell you what to do. In other words, you've put your finger right on the problem.
I was going to give you specific options, but on rereading the OP, I think you should talk to a lawyer.
If you can't get a lawyer from legal aid, you can check out this book
05-03-2005, 03:40 PM
IANAL, but I had a friend who was contemplating withholding rent from his landlord recently, and I helped him go through the legal documents and legal aid websites in his state to determine his rights, and the pros and cons of withholding rent, as well as the applicability of the implied warranty of habitability.
From what I've read, I don't think the laws were meant to help people in your situation. There are people out there like my friend, who have half of their apartment completely uninhabitable for months on end (I only got involved at the end of the saga or it wouldn't hae gone on that long), who have tried begging and pleading their landlords to fix the problems, but can't.
That is not your situation. Your landlord was a dick. You had five days worth of misery because of his dick-ness. Word gets around about these sorts of buildings. Maybe someday it'll cost him a customer or two.
However, if you withhold rent, you very well might end up in small claims court, with a very unsympathetic judge. Do you want what happened to batsto to happen to you? It's not worth it. Think about the best possible circumstance: you get a great, sympathetic judge, you win, you keep five day's worth of rent, and no judgements entered against you that will make future landlords drop you like a hot potato. You still probably won't wind up making enough money to cover taking off a day from work to go to court.
I repeat that IANAL. Go see a lawyer if it makes sense financially. I can't imagine that it would cost less to do that than to just lump it.
05-03-2005, 05:13 PM
I don't know what part of California you live in, but I can tell you that the county of Los Angeles and the city of Redondo Beach don't give a flying fig what kind of uninhabitable dwelling you're being forced to live in.
My husband and I were forced to live in an apartment (where I'd been a tenant in good standing for 10 years!) with a broken water pipe directly under our unit, which caused all the cabinets and walls in my kitchen and bedroom to become covered in mold and mildew, every individual slat in our hardwood floors to buckle, the kitchen linoleum to come up at the seams, and slugs to climb up behind the baseboards, which had pulled away from the walls.
As if this weren't bad enough, our slumlord refused to provide adequate trash pickup (the dumpster overflowed every single week), or seal off the access points into the crawl space below us, or between the crawl space and our unit, which resulted in rats nesting in and infesting our unit. You don't even want to know the volumes of rat feces that was in the water heater closet, let alone what we picked up off the middle of the floor every day, or found under furniture when we moved it.
We called and asked nicely. We wrote pleading letters and then firmly stated requests for repair, all sent via Certified Mail, all of which were Returned To Sender unopened. We filed complaints with the city of Redondo, who did absolutely nothing at all, and the county Health Department, who came out twice, did thorough inspections and wrote the (known to them for other similar violations!) slumlord up for numerous violations, including all of the above, plus broken windows, peeling exterior paint and uncapped sewer pipes, all of which he roundly ignored.
The Health Dept. called him into their offices for an administrative hearing. He thumbed his nose at them by no-showing. So they turned him over to the District Attorney, who scheduled a hearing and subpoenaed him to appear. Wanna try guessing how he responed to the D.A.? Yup, he no-showed. Did they file charges against him? HA!
The final straw was when the towels we'd stuffed under the bedroom doors at night in an effort to protect ourselves, failed to keep the rats out, and one of them chewed its way through and proceeded to jump up in my bed and run up my leg!! Of course we had no choice but to move into a motel, and of course we had withheld rent pending proper repairs being completed. That didn't stop him from posting a Notice to Pay or Quit (illegally) or suing us for Unlawful Detainer (illegally), even though he knew he didn't have a snowball's chance in hell of prevailing -- the sole purpose of which was to try to intimidate us into paying or quitting and to force us to have to plunk down hundreds of dollars in court fees to file a response (he even tried to RAISE our rent during all this!). And because he knew he wouldn't win and it was all an exercise in extortion, he dropped his case the morning it was to be heard.
At that point, we had no choice but to find someplace else to live, since he clearly wasn't going to fix the problems and there were serious health and safety risks. So when we had most of our things out of the apartment itself (we still had a few personal belongings inside) and quite a bit of stuff stored in the garage, but were still fighting the UD (we'd be damned if we'd allow a judgment against us, even if we were already in the process of moving!), the SOB broke into our apartment (which we still had lawful possession of) and changed all the locks. When we called the police and had all the locks changed again, he just showed up the next day and had the door completely removed from the hinges and taken off the property. Did the police do anything? <SNORT!!>
The pig owes us thousands of dollars in hotel bills, moving expenses and other fines we're entitled to collect for all the illegal crap he pulled on us. Would we ever, in a million years, be able collect? I think you can answer that question without assistance.
And you had a few days where you had to either take a cold shower or shower at the club? Believe me, you won't win on that one, even if it technically falls under the umbrella of habitability.
These guys hold all the cards. They're the ones with the money and the power and the bank of lawyers. Don't fuck with them. Pay your rent in full and start looking for another place to live. You'll only regret it if you don't. The state may have laws that look like they're supposed to protect you, but when it comes to enforcing them, you're on your own. Good luck!
05-03-2005, 05:49 PM
I had a problem similar to this once. After a quick talk with a lawyer I was told that withholding rent wasn't a good idea. It would be best for me to just pay my rent and pursue some form of legal action against the landlord (i.e. show that he violated the lease, which he had. Although in said lease it specifically said I had no right to withhold rent in response to land lord violation of said lease, I have no idea what the specific laws in VA were at the time or if the lease was even legally acceptable.)
Anyways I just paid my rent same as usual and took him to small claims court. He didn't show up and I got a judgment against him, it took a few months but he finally paid.
It was something like 9 days worth of rent that he had to pay me back.
I didn't get a hotel, I just showered in cold water ;).
05-03-2005, 07:06 PM
Why not look for a better living arrangement? Write off the hotel stay, but move somewhere where sh*t like this is less likely to happen.
05-03-2005, 07:18 PM
The big if when it come to rent is the habitability of the home. My step daughter and her husband recently has issues with the dump they were living in. The lawyer for the rental company and judge used the word habitability a number of times, even though they were released from the lease, they were still found liable for the rent up till the day they moved out. After a windstorm about 12 years ago, me and my family went 12 days without electricity, of course, this meant no hot water. Inconvenience? Yes. Uncomfortable? Yes. Was my home uninhabitible? No.
05-04-2005, 12:07 AM
No hot water does not make the unit unhabitable. If you have a bathtub, it's easy enough to boil a couple pots of water in order to get enough hot water to bathe in and even if you don't have a tub, you can wash up at a sink.
That's not to make light of your situation. However, 5 days to repair or replace the building's water heater would probably not be considered unreasonable, and your spending the night at the local Holiday Inn in order to bathe would probably not be considered reasonable.
05-04-2005, 12:13 AM
a. You were put out. That entitles you to compensation.
I don't have a problem with witholding a reasonable amount of rent.
b. How much compensation?
But what's reasonable? You didn't exactly say, but I get the impression you're planning to withold 5 whole days. That's crazy unreasonable.
The water broke on Saturday, and they got it fixed by Wed morning. It wasn't like the place was on fire or filled with cockroaches or something. Yeah, it was a pain and they should've moved quicker. But they hardly did something that entitles you to 5 days of their product for free. If you knocked off a half a days rent, I'd be in favor of it.
c. Is this act of rebellion really worth it?
Ok, let's say you do knock off half a day's rent. They'll complain and threaten, but realistically it's too small an amount for them to sue you. However...
Guess which tenant in your building will be the next one to have his rent raised? How much do you think that raise might be? If it's only a tiny 1% raise, you'll have paid them back in just a month and a half. And then you're paying more each month.
d. The bottom line
Don't rock the boat, baby. Not over something piddling.
05-04-2005, 02:18 AM
When I tried withholding rent from my landlord once in CA, we made sure and looked up the appropriate procedures and did all the documentation, including informing the landlord ahead of time about the grievance and the plan to withhold, and he never said anything. Then when we moved out, he deducted the exact same amount from the deposit, listing it as "rent owed." I doubt what he did was kosher, but I was in no position to fight about it, having already moved to another town.
05-04-2005, 12:34 PM
As others have said; It won't be worth it to withhold rent. How does one figure the monetary value of no hot water for five days anyway? The place was still habitable, you still had running water.
Being a construction worker and having worked with plumbers many times, I can tell you that just because the parts store is open on Saturdays doesn't mean they have the part(s) you need. What part broke? Was it the whole heater itself, or more likely the boiler? If that's the case then replacing the whole unit means you have to get the new one first. That could mean a couple of days shipping it (having first been able to order the thing Monday morning), possibly rewiring the electric to it if the voltage of the new unit didn't match the old one, re-working some of the plumbing to retrofit the new unit in place, dealing with tight working environments, insulation, and possible venting situations and assorted building code updates and problems that could arise when doing a job of this magnitude. If that's indeed what happened. Even some of the smaller parts of an older system can be hard to find on short notice.
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