We’ve all heard the stories: cockroaches, mold, plumbing problems and the landlord who won’t fix them. While most landlords are well intentioned and want to do right by their tenants, there are occasions when problems go unattended.
When you do encounter a problem, the first step is checking to see if it’s covered by your lease agreement, state landlord-tenant laws or local building codes.
Landlords are required by law to keep the building structurally safe and sound. They’re also required to maintain electrical, heating and plumbing systems, supply cold and hot water and keep pest infestations at bay. Keep in mind, however, that if any of the repairs are required because of your actions, you may be responsible for paying for them.
Once you’ve established that your landlord is responsible for repairs, here are five ways to get him to make those repairs. Following them in order will give you a better shot at maintaining good relations while addressing the issue.
First, request the repair in writing. That formalizes your request, reducing the possibility the landlord will ignore it while also starting a paper trail in case it’s needed later. If you believe there are issues affecting your health and safety be sure to notify your landlord in your letter. If your landlord responds in writing, keep a copy for your files. If your landlord responds verbally, send a follow-up letter restating what the landlord promised — and keep a copy of that, too.
Second, involve other tenants. If the landlord is unresponsive to you, chances are she is unresponsive to others, too. Talk with other tenants to see if they are having similar issues. If the problem is something that is building- or property-wide, it’s definitely appropriate to talk to others. Ask them to join you in politely but firmly requesting repairs.
Third, call your municipal building and inspections office. If you (and other tenants) have requested repairs in writing and the landlord has not responded, request a building inspection. That can be a very effective way to motivate the landlord to address needed repairs. It also helps document the problem in case you need to move to the fourth means to getting repairs.
Fourth, call the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection at 1 (800) 422-7128 to make a complaint if the landlord does not follow through with repairs. The Department is tasked with investigating complaints regarding landlords and tenants and may be able to help resolve those issues. There are also statutory penalties that could apply against the landlord.
Fifth, file a lawsuit. For repairs of $10,000 or less in Wisconsin, you can file a claim in small claims court. It’s often wise to send the landlord one final demand letter stating what you want and that you intend to sue if the landlord doesn’t respond. If the landlord still doesn’t address the problem, it’s time to visit your county court clerk.
A natural response by many tenants is to withhold rent when problems go unaddressed. But that often encourages landlords to retaliate, opens yourself up to eviction and weakens your position should you pursue a lawsuit. If you do want to withhold or adjust the rent — or move out of the dwelling while still under a lease agreement — consult with an attorney first to make sure you do so legally.
For more a landlord-tenant lawyer in La Crosse, call Johns, Flaherty & Collins at 608-784-5678.