When a rented property is uninhabitable, it can pose a health and safety risk to the tenants living in the unit. The definition of uninhabitable varies from state to state, but generally, it refers to any rental house or apartment in which conditions are present that make it an unhealthy or unsafe place to live. A few examples of these conditions are:
- Chipping lead paint.
- Exposed asbestos.
- Inconsistent water temperature.
- Poor ventilation.
- Insufficient security measures.
- Damaged floor tiles.
When a rental unit is deemed uninhabitable, a tenant has various legal options. In some states, the actions a tenant can take depend on the severity of the violation.
Definition of Uninhabitable
Although each state maintains its own definition of uninhabitable, the qualities that define an uninhabitable house are generally similar from state to state. Some states, like New York, have fairly broad definitions of uninhabitable. Along with broad definitions, the state has stringent tenants’ rights laws compared to other states. In New York, landlords must meet the implied warranty of habitability in the leases they offer tenants, which means they attest in good faith that:
- The unit is for human habitation;
- The unit’s condition is in reasonable accordance with both the tenant’s and landlord’s intended use; and
- When in the unit, the tenants are not subjected to any conditions that could potentially harm their health, safety or well-being.
In practice, this means that an apartment that isn't heated consistently is uninhabitable, because lack of heat is uncomfortable and even dangerous for the tenants living in the apartment. Similarly, a house with exposed asbestos, faulty plumbing or damaged door locks would be deemed an uninhabitable house under New York law. Some states have very specific guidelines that differentiate an inhabitable house from an uninhabitable dwelling. One of these states is Maine, where the heating system in a rental unit must heat the unit to at least 68 degrees Fahrenheit for the unit to be considered inhabitable.
Handling an Uninhabitable House
Generally, the first course of action recommended to tenants when they believe their rented property is uninhabitable is to notify their landlords of the problems in their unit. In many states, a tenant cannot take further steps such as withholding rent or suing her landlord unless she first does two things:
- She must notify her landlord of problems in her unit; and
- The landlord fails to make a good faith attempt to correct the problem within the time frame specified by state law.
Legal Recourse for an Uninhabitable House
The legal recourse available to a tenant who has been subjected to an uninhabitable house varies from state to state. In many states, tenants have the right to withhold rent payments from their landlords until the problem in the rental unit is repaired. Not all states allow tenants to do this, though. Notably, Alabama renters are required to pay their rent on time every month regardless of the conditions of their units and whether their landlords have taken action to repair these conditions.
In many states, Alabama included, tenants have the right to terminate their leases without sacrificing their security deposits or facing early termination fees if their landlords do not correct a problems in their unit after being notified of the problem. The time frame for making repairs varies from state to state. In Alabama, the time is 14 days following notification, and in Florida, the time frame is seven days. In many states, such as New Jersey, tenants also have the right to “repair and deduct,” which means they may make repairs to their units themselves or hire qualified contractors to do the work and deduct the repair cost from their rent.
Tenants can also sue their landlords to pursue compensation for rent paid or expenses they face related to the issues that render the rented property uninhabitable. For the court to rule in his favor, he generally must provide the court with proof that his unit was uninhabitable, such as photographs of its interior or exterior, as well as proof that he made an effort to correct the problem with his landlord.