When can a tenant legally withhold rent?

Although it’s never ideal, sometimes it may become necessary to withhold rent until problems with a rental unit are corrected.

Tenants need to be very careful when doing so. A tenant must provide notice and be sure to follow state or local laws. Not following the rules can lead to an eviction for failing to pay rent.

First, always give the landlord a reasonable opportunity to fix any problems. But if you have repairs that need to be made and your landlord refuses to make them, or won’t even return your call, eventually withholding rent may be an option. Unless your lease specifically allows you to deduct or withhold rent for particular repairs, maintenance or other issues, you need to clear it with your landlord, in writing, to make sure you are protected from a breach of contract claim. If your landlord refuses to cooperate, an experienced landlord-tenant attorney can help you avoid having to pay even more for an eviction defense attorney down the road.

State and local laws will control when you can withhold rent without a landlord’s consent. Generally, this will be allowed when there are habitability issues that a landlord knows about and refuses to correct in a reasonable time. Typically local law will require that any rent withheld be paid into an escrow account which will release the funds to the landlord when the problem is corrected. Some areas have rent boards that can facilitate this process, and other disputes, without the need for hiring an attorney.

You may be able to hire professionals to make the repairs and have those costs deducted from your rent. Again, state and local laws will explain when this is appropriate. In emergency situations, such as when plumbing explodes, a tenant can often have the costs of the repair reimbursed by the landlord. However, such things should be discussed and negotiated separately, rather than as part of rent.

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