Trouble in Paradise: What are the respective rights of landlords and tenants when repairs are needed?
By Rudman Winchell Attorney Allison A. Economy
When a tenant leases an apartment in Maine, he receives an “implied warranty of fitness for human habitation.” This means that in any written or oral lease, the landlord is deemed to have promised that the apartment is and will be fit for human habitation, even if that is not expressly provided in the lease.
If there are dangerous conditions within an apartment, a tenant has the right to make minor repairs provided that all of the following conditions are met:
- The problem must be one that makes the rental unit unhealthy or unsafe. Examples include no heat or not enough heat in the winter, unsafe drinking water, a falling ceiling, or unsafe wiring.
- The cost to fix the problem must be less than $500 or half of the monthly rent, whichever is greater. For example, if the rent is $800 per month, the tenant can spend up to $500 to do the repair. If the rent is $1,200, the tenant can spend up to $600. (Note that this amount is increased to two times the monthly rent if the building is in foreclosure).
- The tenant, his family, or his guests did not cause the problem.
- The tenant must notify the landlord in writing, by certified mail, return receipt requested, of the tenant’s intention to correct the condition at the landlord’s expense, and the landlord must fail to comply within 14 days, or as promptly as conditions require in case of emergency.
- The work and the materials must be of good quality. If the problem is with the heating, plumbing, or electricity, the tenant must get a licensed worker to do the repairs.
- After the work is done, the tenant must send the landlord a copy of the bill. Only then can the tenant deduct the cost of the repair from his rent payment.
If the tenant refuses to pay rent because the landlord will not make the requested repairs, the landlord can seek eviction, but the tenant may raise as a defense the alleged violation of the implied warranty of habitability. Further, if the apartment burns down or is so damaged that the tenant can no longer live there (and the damage is no fault of the tenant, his family, or his guests), the tenant does not have to pay rent from the day he is forced out (also known as a constructive eviction).
If the landlord will not make the requested repairs, the tenant may file a complaint against the landlord in District or Superior Court. The complaint must provide the following:
- A description of the condition which endangers or materially impairs the health or safety of the tenants;
- That the condition was not caused by the tenant, his family, or his guests;
- That written notice of the condition was given to the landlord or to the person who customarily collects rent on behalf of the landlord;
- That the landlord unreasonably failed under the circumstances to take prompt, effective steps to repair or remedy the condition; and
- That the tenant was current in rental payments owing to the landlord at the time written notice was given.
If the court finds that the allegations in the complaint are true, the judge may order any of these remedies:
- An injunction requiring that the landlord fix the apartment;
- A reduction in the rent until the landlord does the repairs;
- That the landlord pay back some of the rent the tenant has paid;
- That the tenant is authorized to move out of the apartment until the repairs are completed, with no rent to accrue during that time; and/or
- That the landlord must provide or pay a surcharge for alternate housing until the repairs are completed.