LegalEase: Question 1 — Dipping on a Lazy Landlord

Ever ask the landlord to fix something and he didn’t do it? Especially something big? That could be your ace in the hole.

When people learn that I’m a lawyer, they shout a variety of questions and statements into my ears. “Who do I call to get out of a speeding ticket?” (the judge, preferably at his home), “Can you really sue Wal-Mart for not having ice cream?” (if you pay my fee up front, sure), “Is it illegal for the government to email me?” (Dad we’ve been through this). The point of this series is to answer some of those questions to validate the money I spent on law school do the most good I can in the world.

This Week’s Question:

“I’m gonna be moving out of my lease early, the landlord doesn’t ever come by or anything and the lease runs till May. The house is fucked up. Heat doesn’t work in half the house and it’s drafty as shit. Landlord never shows up when we ask him to fix anything. Do I have to pay the whole lease or can I disappear 5 states away without repercussions? Side note, my neighbor hasn’t paid rent in two years and they don’t even know he lives there.”

[So, it’s probably a great time to remind everyone to read the disclaimer at the bottom of this post. Please believe I am not going down for any of y’all who think this is real legal advice and get yourselves in trouble.]

First, I think your neighbor might be a squatter. And your landlord might get his spot adversely possessed if he doesn’t find the time to check for that kind of thing every few years (or every month like normal people).

But your neighbor isn’t asking the question, so let’s talk about your situation.

The default answer in these situations is to inform your landlord that you will “breach” (break the terms of the lease). If he consents you’re fine, if not you might have to pay “damages” for not upholding your end of the bargain.

The real answer involves another question: what personal info do they have from you? Because if you’re going to run, it tends to go better when the person you’re running from doesn’t have your social security number, bank account, mother’s maiden name, and your date of birth. Not that I’m saying you should run, but if you run like an uninformed dumbass that will be on my conscience for a good 40 minutes.

I’m going to guess that if your landlord is too lazy to actually maintain his shit, he also lacks the self-awareness to know when he’s wrong. So you’re in a better position for his inevitable attempt to get back at you if you’ve been paying your rent in full and on time up to this point.

Ever ask the landlord to fix something and he didn’t do it? Especially something big? That could be your ace in the hole.

You might know where I’m going with this…especially if you READ THE FUCKING LEASE BEFORE YOU SIGNED IT.

Did Not Read Lease Landlord.

When someone doesn’t read their lease before signing it.

 

There might be an explicit provision in your lease where the landlord agreed to make certain major repairs (and I’d say heating in December is probably major unless you’re in Hawaii). But even without that, you might get to claim either constructive eviction or a breach of the implied warranty of habitability. These are both based on state and local laws, so make sure these actually apply in your state before trying to use them.

Constructive Eviction

A constructive eviction means the landlord breached a duty imposed on him by your state or local landlord-tenant laws, and that breach is so bad that you’ve been “substantially and materially deprived of your use and enjoyment” of the place you’re renting.

Pretty much means the landlord fucked up so bad that you can’t live in the place you’re paying to live in. No heat in the winter usually counts. When this happens, you have the right to move out, terminate the lease, and even sue the landlord for damages.

Two catches: 1) You have to actually give the landlord notice and time to make the necessary repairs before leaving; and 2) You actually have to leave before you can use this argument, because you’re pretty much saying it’s impossible to live in the house…and it’s impossible to live in a house that’s impossible to live in.

Implied Warranty of Habitability

The implied warranty of habitability is pretty similar, except that you don’t have to actually leave if you don’t want to.

You could actually just fix the heat yourself and deduct the cost from your rent, or you could reduce the rent you pay (down to $0 even) and ask a court to decide the fair rental value of the house now that the landlord breached the warranty. Staying, paying rent, and suing your landlord is allowed under this option too.

That’s what nice about this one, you have a variety of options and don’t have to actually move out to make your case. And it’s non-waivable, so even if you thought “I don’t need no damn government to keep me warm!” when you signed the lease in June, nothing you signed will screw you over when you’re freezing in the kitchen and all too happy to take advantage of the law in January.

tl;dr version:

Best thing you can do is write a letter giving the landlord 30 days to fix the problems. If he doesn’t, sue. I’m not sure just bouncing is the BEST answer, but at least that letter will help if you do.

So if he sues you, you may have proof that he screwed up before you did.

And for the love of God don’t give him your Social Security number. (I had a dentist ask for my SSN once. Please, that has nothing to do with teeth buddy.)

Good luck fella.

Disclaimer because of course: Please do not treat anything in LegalEase as legal advice. It is so not legal advice. It’s my opinion. If you need real legal advice, get a damn lawyer and pay him (the legal job market still sucks, do some bargain hunting and you’ll make a young J.D.’s entire month).
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