Renting is supposed to be a carefree existence: When your apartment malfunctions—be it a stuck window, your incessantly running toilet or a section of the ceiling that collapses onto your living room--the landlord (or management firm) sends someone to fix it.
That’s the theory. In reality, getting repairs done in a timely manner—or any manner at all—can be somewhat more challenging. Variables include how tight a ship your super or management company runs, where your landlord falls in the slumlord-to-class-act continuum, the pay-to-play expectations of the staff, and your own reservoir of charm and persuasion.
If you're having trouble getting things done, here are six ways to push the right buttons:
1. Put it in writing
We’re not sure why, but complaints in writing tend to get more attention than just calling or telling the super what you need.
“If there is a complaint book in the building, that’s a good start, but writing a letter to the super or to the managing agent, and copying the other makes it official and will get a better response,” says Manhattan real estate attorney Steven Wagner of Porzio, Bromberg & Newman.
2. Tip the super
Though it may seem unjust to have to tip someone to do what they are already paid to do, this is a time-honored and fairly successful way to get attention, even if it’s just getting moved to the head of the line above the 20 other tenants clamoring for attention. A tip may also get your repair performed better—inducing, for example, your super to replace your broken fridge with a new one instead of the cast-off in the basement.
3. Call 311
If you have exhausted your options and are dealing with something arguably dangerous to health, life and safety (eg vermin, dangerous electrical wires, unreasonable noise, mold etc), call 311.
“The City will send out an inspector from either the Housing Preservation and Development, the Department of Buildings or the Department of Health, depending on the problem,” says Wagner. “Issuance of a violation against the landlord will confirm the existence of the condition and require the landlord to pay a fine or to show up in court to contest the violation. In either case, your landlord will have to certify that the violation has been corrected.”
Downside: Your repair may be taken care of, but this will not endear you to your landlord when it’s time to renegotiate that lease. Of course, maybe you don’t want to live there anymore anyway.
4. Withhold rent
Depending on the seriousness of your problem, it might make sense to withhold rent.
The city sorts violations into three categories: Class A, Class B, or Class C. Class A is a non-hazardous condition, such as a minor leak or a small area of peeling paint when there are no children under the age of 6, Class B is a hazardous violation such as the absence of a self-closing door to the building (for security) or presence of vermin (i.e., roaches, bed bugs); and C is an immediately hazardous condition such as lack of heat, hot water, electricity or rodents, explains Wagner.
(If the city has already issued a violation, you can look up its classification on the relevant agency's website. If not, peruse the Housing Maintenance Code to see how your problem will likely classified.)
Class C violations stand the best chance of convincing a court that you're entitled to a significant rent abatement, says Wagner.
If you sent the landlord a letter asking for the repair, the city has issued the landlord a violation, and you withhold rent, "you should be in pretty good shape to succeed on a Warranty of Habitability claim, which is a defense to non-payment of rent where conditions are dangerous to life, health or safety,” says Wagner. “Some nice clear photos of the conditions are always a good idea in court too.”
You do not need a lawyer, but you do need proof such as those photographs, a calendar on which you tracked the conditions on a daily basis, and evidence of your communications or efforts to communicate with the landlord.
Even with a Class C violation, your case is not a slam dunk.
“The landlord can prevail by showing that you created the condition or by claiming that you did not provide access and prevented the landlord from making the repair,” says Wagner. (Keep in mind that your lease probably has a ‘legal fees’ clause that will allow the landlord to recover his expenses if he wins. Although if you win, you get to recover your legal fees.)
“You need to be sure that you will win on the Warranty of Habitability claim or you may be sorry you ever took this route,” says Wagner.
You may also be sorry when you go rent another apartment, as many if not most landlords refuse to rent to someone who has previously been involved in litigation with a landlord.
5. Take your landlord AND the city to court
This is another option for renters dealing Class A, B or C violations: The HP Proceeding, which Wagner likes to refer to as the Nuclear Bomb. (“HP” stands for “Housing Part” a.k.a. Housing Court.)
“The HP Proceeding is a lawsuit that you bring in housing court against your landlord for failing to comply with the law and against the City of New York because it has failed to enforce the law,” explains Wagner.
As you will not need a lawyer, it costs you practically nothing; housing court clerks help prepare the necessary papers to start the HP proceeding.
“Just be sure to make a complete list of everything wrong so that when the court sends out an inspector, they will know all of the complaints,” says Wagner. “The inspectors will only check those items that are listed, so don’t be shy.”
When the case appears on the court calendar, the attorneys for the city will prosecute the case for you and force the landlord to make the repairs that the inspector confirms are violations.
“These cases usually get resolved with the landlord either adjourning the case to get more time to make repairs before the judge hears the case," says Wagner, "or by the parties signing a stipulation of settlement that requires the landlord to make the repairs either immediately for class C violations, within 30 days for class B violations or within 90 days for class A violations.”
Fines can be significant if the landlord does not make the necessary repairs. They typically range from $50 per day after 90 days for class A violations to $250 per day imposed immediately for C violations says Wagner.
“The court will enforce fines not only with a money judgment against the landlord, but if the landlord persistently fails to make the repairs, the court may punish the landlord for contempt,” says Wagner.
The downside here is the same as with withholding rent: If your next landlord finds out, they will probably refuse to rent to you.
6. Do it yourself
This is a somewhat less aggressive option that falls between withholding rent and heading straight to court in an HP proceeding: Get an estimate for repairing the problem, send it to your landlord and request the repair in writing.
If your request is ignored, pay for it yourself, and deduct it from your next rent check. There’s a decent chance this approach will succeed. However, if your landlord balks, “you might wind up in housing court,” says Wagner.
Now it’s up to you whether you want to eat the cost of the repair or risk being blackballed by future landlords.
If you decide to stand your ground, explains Wagner, “the landlord will try to collect and the tenant will claim Warranty of Habitability and that he or she spent money to correct the condition.”
Copies of the bills and proof of payment are critical to your defense, along with documentation of the condition, notice to the landlord that the condition existed (make copies of any letters and send them certified mail, saving proof of mailing) —and that the landlord failed or refused to correct the condition.