Getting a landlord to make repairs

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Massachusetts Law Reform Institute
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All tenants have the right to live in a safe and decent place. You do not need a lease to have this right. If your landlord knows about a dangerous or unhealthy problem in your apartment or building, and they do not fix it, they are breaking the law. 

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Use MADE: Up To Code to document your bad conditions and take action to get the repairs made.

What types of problems is my landlord required to repair?

The Massachusetts Sanitary Code sets minimum requirements for housing. For example, all rental housing must have heat, hot water, and electricity. Kitchens and bathrooms must have sinks with running water. Doors and windows must have locks.

If you have a more serious problem like no heat, hot water, or working plumbing, the landlord must fix the problem within 24 hours of notice from the Board of Health.  

To learn about the conditions your apartment must meet, see the Housing Code Checklist.  

What can I do if something in my apartment needs repair?

If something in your apartment needs repair:

  1. Tell your landlord as soon as possible. The best way to do that is in writing (including email).  
  2. Ask your landlord when a repair person will be coming to fix the problem. It is important for you, or someone, to be home so you can make sure the repair person can get into the apartment.  

Your landlord must fix the problem within a reasonable period of time.  

If your landlord refuses to make the repairs, you can call your town or city Board of Health to ask for an inspection. A Housing Inspector will examine your home to see if it follows the state Sanitary Code. If there are violations, an inspector can order your landlord to make repairs within a certain time. In many cases, landlords will make the repairs.  

If the problems are serious, like you have a plumbing problem or no water or heat, tell the Board of Health. By law, they must try their best to come within one business day. 

Protect yourself:

Take photographs or videos of the problems. Write down the date and time when you took the photo or video. 

What should I know about getting an inspection?

Board of Health housing inspections are free. If you asked for an inspection, you should:  

  • Be prepared. Before the inspection, fill out the Housing Code Checklist.
  • Clean your home. Make sure hallways and doors are not blocked, and trash is taken out so you do not get in trouble for Sanitary Code violations.
  • Be there. If you cannot be there when the inspector comes, arrange for someone else to be there. Leave a note that says this person has your permission to let the inspector inspect your home.
  • Ask for a complete inspection. Ask the inspector to inspect inside your apartment, the outside of the building, and all common areas.
  • Point out problems. If the inspector misses a problem, point it out so it is on the report.
  • Ask for a copy of the inspector’s report. If your apartment or building needs serious repairs, the inspector must send a repair order to your landlord within 12 hours.
  • Follow up. If the landlord does not make the repairs by the time and date on the order, contact the inspector and ask for a re-inspection. 
What can I do if my landlord refuses to make repairs?

If you have told your landlord about a problem (and remember it is best to do this in writing) or the landlord has been ordered by the Board of Health to make repairs, and the landlord refuses to make repairs, you have the right to do these things:

  • Withhold Rent. You can withhold the rent or part of it until the landlord makes the repairs you requested. They may try to evict you. To protect yourself from eviction:

    • Put the rent money you withhold in a bank account. Keep it separate from your other accounts so you have this money if your landlord takes you to court.
    • Before you are behind in rent, write your landlord a letter, list the repairs needed, and say you will withhold rent until the problems are fixed. Keep a copy of your letter in a safe place.

    If you do not know if you can withhold rent, see: When Can You Withhold Rent.

  • Repair and Deduct. Get the repairs made and deduct (subtract) the cost from your rent. This can be complicated, and you must follow the law, including getting a Board of Health report.  
  • Join with tenants. If other tenants need repairs, work together on solutions.
  • Break your lease. If your landlord refuses to fix serious problems, you may be able to break your lease. This means moving out before the end date on your lease and not paying rent after you leave. You must get a housing inspection before you move out. This will protect you if the landlord sues you for breaking your lease.
  • Take your landlord to court. If you prove the landlord broke the law, a judge may order them to make repairs or pay you money for bad conditions. Or, the judge may order a temporary landlord called a “receiver” to make the repairs.

To learn more, see Options If Your Landlord Refuses to Make Repairs

I do not have a lease. Does my landlord still have to make repairs?

Yes. The purpose of the state Sanitary Code is to protect your health, safety, and well-being. It applies to you whether you have a lease or not. 

Can my landlord evict me because I asked for repairs?

No. It is illegal for a landlord to evict you, raise your rent, or make a major change in your rental agreement because you:

  • Ask the landlord in writing for needed repairs,
  • Report bad conditions in your apartment or building to the Board of Health or other local officials,
  • Join a tenants’ organization, or
  • Withhold rent because of bad conditions. 

To learn more, see Retaliation

This article is an overview. For more detailed information, see Legal Tactics, Chapter 8: Getting Repairs Made.

The Massachusetts Sanitary Code sets minimum requirements for housing. To learn about the conditions your apartment must meet, get the Housing Code Checklist (Booklet 2)
 

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