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Withholding (or threatening to withhold) rent is a time-honored method of forcing your landlord to fix problems in your apartment, but deciding when—and how—to do it can be tricky.
One writer on the money blog Billfold found himself grappling with this exact question, after a leak above his apartment's shower ended in a collapsed ceiling and a rainstorm of the upstairs neighbor's shower water, thanks to what he describes as "a month-long odyssey of incompetence" on the landlord's end.
As anyone would do, the Hartford, Conn., tenant sent an angry email, the kind that could come in handy in future court proceedings:
"I had documented every step of the ceiling’s decline, and I did the same with its failure. I even took video of the indoor rain. Then I cleaned up and started writing an angry email. And what an angry email it was! I looked up the building codes and the procedure for filing reports of code violations. I detailed every contact I’d made with the building. I attached pictures of the ceiling and of the letter I’d written, and of the bathtub filled with soggy sheetrock."
Among the points in the letter: that the leak was not sudden but the result of management failing to take action sooner; that he was willing to pay the rent if necessary and then file a complaint with the city; and that in the past, building management had always been "courteous and friendly." No doubt all these remarks helped him come across as a reasonable tenant. He goes on:
"It turned out (surprise!) that there was a real leak behind my neighbor’s wall. It took all of August for the leak and the ceiling to be replaced. I still haven’t heard whether they expect rent for August, but now it’s a new month and I’m going to write 'September rent' on the memo line of my check and assume everything is squared away."
Meanwhile, if you find yourself in a similar situation, you may want to check out our guidelines on what kind of damages usually justify withholding rent, and what the potential ramifications are (see: landing a spot on the tenant blacklist). It's important to punish a negligent landlord, just so long as you avoid headaches for yourself in the process.