Getting an Inspection

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Susan Hegel

Tenants in Massachusetts have a right to have their home inspected by a local housing inspector. Before you call a housing inspector, you should make sure you have given your landlord a chance to make repairs. If, however, you have given your landlord a chance to make repairs and she refuses or doesn't reply, a housing inspector can be helpful. 

Housing inspectors examine properties to see whether they comply with the state Sanitary Code and the local health ordinance. If there are violations, an inspector has the power to order your landlord to make repairs within a certain period of time. In many cases, a landlord will then make the repairs.

How to Contact the Housing Inspector

Housing inspectors are required to inspect your apartment upon your request. To request an inspection, call your local town or city hall. Housing Inspectors are often located at your local Board of Health office, but can also be in other departments, for example.

  • In Boston, Cambridge, Chelsea, and Worcester, contact the Inspectional Services Department.
  • In Springfield, contact the Department of Code Enforcement, Housing Division.

When you call to make an appointment, try to schedule a definite appointment for the inspection. Housing inspectors are required to use their best efforts to inspect at a time mutually satisfactory to you and to them. An inspection should be done within 5 days of your request. If there are serious problems, such as lack of heat or water, tell the inspector. By law, she must use her best efforts to come within 24 hours of such a request.

An inspector may tell you that she will just call the landlord and get the landlord to fix the problem. There is no rule that prohibits an inspector from calling a landlord. However, the law still requires a housing inspector to inspect your property. The law also requires a housing inspector to inspect your home after you request an inspection whether or not you have notified your landlord about bad conditions.

Unfortunately, sometimes housing inspectors do not respond to tenants' requests for inspections and may even claim that tenants never contacted them. If an inspector does not respond to your call, write the Board of Health a letter requesting an inspection. (For a sample see Letter Requesting an Inspection (Form 11). Save a copy of this letter so you will always have proof of when you contacted your local inspector. See the section called What If the Inspector Fails to Do the Job? for more information.

In some housing courts, you can also file papers requesting that the judge order a "housing court specialist" to inspect your apartment. If you do that, you will need to give the landlord notice that you are filing such a request. If there is already a lawsuit or an eviction filed, you can file a motion requesting the inspection. If nothing has been filed in court yet, you may file your own lawsuit. See the section Go to Court in this chapter for more information.

Be Prepared

If you call the Board of Health, keep the following two things in mind:

  • It is illegal for a landlord to retaliate against you for calling the Board of Health.
  • It is very important to be prepared for a Board of Health inspector.

a. Retaliation Is Illegal

Contacting your local housing inspector may cause your landlord to become angry and retaliate against you by raising your rent, sending you an eviction notice, or harassing you in other ways. Retaliation is illegal. You have a right to tell the landlord of code violations, request an inspection from the Board of Health, and take legal action against your landlord if she refuses to make repairs.

If your landlord attempts to retaliate against you, you can bring a lawsuit against her. The law seeks to protect tenants against being harassed or evicted for trying to enforce their rights. See Chapter 12: Evictions and Chapter 13: When to Take Your Landlord to Court for more on retaliation.

b. Be Prepared for Inspectors

While housing inspectors can be very helpful to tenants in getting repairs made, some inspectors have been known to bend the rules in favor of landlords. In some cases, housing inspectors have also cited tenants for violating the Sanitary Code for things like failure to take out the trash, dirty toilets, unsanitary kitchens, or excessive clutter or otherwise blocking doorways or hallways. Because you may not know the inspectors in your community, the best thing to do is to prepare for an inspection. Take the Housing Code Checklist (Booklet 2) and go through your apartment and the common areas, such as halls, basements, or front and back doors, which you share with others. Be sure that the apartment is clean and not severely cluttered.

What Should the Inspector Inspect?

Someone must be present on your behalf during any inspection inside your apartment. If a neighbor is going to let an inspector in, prepare a written note that will tell the inspector that the neighbor has your permission to take the inspector through the apartment.

When an inspector comes to your apartment, you have a right to request a full inspection, called a "comprehensive" inspection, which includes the interior of your apartment and exterior of the building and all common areas. If you do not request a comprehensive or complete inspection, a housing inspector is required only to check for serious violations and the conditions you specifically ask to be checked. For example, if you report a problem with the heat, the inspector only has to check the heat.

When the inspector comes to your apartment, have your Housing Code Checklist (Booklet 2) with you. If an inspector doesn't think something is a violation, ask her why. Don't be afraid to talk to the inspector. And don't assume that the inspector will see all the violations that you know exist. Point out violations if she misses them, and make sure she writes them all down. For example, if there are mouse droppings, make sure the inspector writes this down even if she does not see a mouse.

a. Getting the Inspector's Report

At the end of the inspection, the inspector must give you or whoever is authorized to be there a copy of her report. If she doesn't, ask for a copy. The inspector must also send your landlord an original, signed copy of the report and mail you a copy within 7 days of the inspection. The inspector's report must include at least the following:

  • The inspector's name,
  • The date and time of the inspection,
  • A list and description of the conditions that violate the state Sanitary Code or local health ordinances,
  • Whether any violations "may endanger or materially impair" the health, safety or well-being of you or anyone else in the apartment,
  • The date when the inspector will make a follow-up visit,
  • A summary of the legal remedies available to you,
  • The name and telephone number of the nearest legal services office, and
  • The inspector's signature after the statement: "This inspection report is signed and certified under the pains and penalties of perjury."

It is very important to get an accurate report. If an inspector leaves a violation off the report, call and ask her to make the correction.

b. What If There Are Violations?

The state Sanitary Code lists 14 specific conditions that are considered so serious that they "may endanger or materially impair" your health, safety or well-being. These are listed in the Housing Code Checklist (Booklet 2). If an inspection finds any of these violations, the inspector must send your landlord a repair order within 12 hours of the inspection. This report should include a notice to the landlord to make a "good-faith effort" to correct these violations within 24 hours of receiving the notice.

If the repairs are not serious, the inspector should send a repair order to the landlord within 7 days of your inspection. The order should state that the landlord must begin to make these repairs or contract with a repair person (in writing) within 5 days of receiving the order. The landlord must complete less serious repairs within 30 days of receiving the order or sooner if the board so orders.

You should receive copies of all repair orders or notices that inspectors send to your landlord. Save these notices.

If your landlord fails to correct any problem within the time ordered by the Board of Health, contact the inspector and request a reinspection. You may also consider whether you want to withhold your rent, organize with other tenants, make repairs and deduct their cost from your rent, break your lease, or take your landlord to court. Each of these options is discussed in this chapter.

c. What If the Inspector Fails to Do the Job?

If a local inspector refuses to do her job properly or respond to your request for an inspection, this may prevent you from getting the help and documentation you need to force your landlord to make repairs. There are several ways you can try to correct this problem if it happens.

To file a complaint with the Board, submit a written letter to the Board within 30 days of receiving an inadequate inspection report or requesting an inspection. A hearing will then be scheduled before the Board. You can bring witnesses, pictures, or any other evidence to the hearing to show what the inspector failed to do. The Board must then inform you, in writing, of its decision within 7 days of the hearing. If you do not agree with its decision, you can challenge the decision in court.

You have the right to complain to the Board of Health if an inspector fails to do the following:

  • Inspect your apartment,
  • Inspect within the required time,
  • Certify violations as serious, when appropriate,
  • Issue a report, or
  • Issue an order to the landlord to make repairs.
  • You can also contact the Community Sanitation Program of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH)
  • Phone: 617-624-5757 for more information and guidance.

If there is a serious backlog of requests for inspections in your town or city, you may want to contact a local or state tenant group and ask them to help you develop a plan to put pressure on the Board of Health. For example, the local newspaper could do a story about the need for more inspectors. Tenants could ask a mayor or local government official to appoint a special prosecutor to help code inspectors enforce orders.


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