What are a tenant’s rights when the air conditioning breaks?
If the AC in your apartment is on the fritz in the middle of summer, you probably want it fixed yesterday! A few sleepless, sweaty nights will do nothing for your mood when negotiating with the management; however, before you lose your cool completely, be sure to know your rights. Is air conditioning an amenity or a necessity? Can you fix it yourself and deduct the cost from your rent? Who do you call when the landlord just doesn’t respond?
The fact is that landlord/tenant law is complex. To answer any of the questions above, or others that may come up in a particular situation, you must delve into complicated legal territory. The information that follows gives a basic understanding of what’s at stake and points you in the right direction.
What are your rights when it comes to air conditioning?
Even though heat waves may not make front-page news as dramatically as do earthquakes or hurricanes, extreme heat can be a dangerous killer. The Office of Climate, Water, and Weather Services at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports about 175 Americans die from heat-related conditions in a normal year.
In 1995, temperatures in Chicago soared so high that an estimated 700 city residents died during a one-week period in July. More recently, the Earth Policy Institute reports over 52,000 Europeans died in the summer 2003 in “one of the deadliest climate-related disasters in Western history.”
Nonetheless, functioning air conditioning is usually considered an amenity rather than a requirement of habitable living conditions. If you live in an area that experiences fairly high temperatures or you have a medical condition requiring a functioning air conditioner, the law might look on that differently.
In South Florida, broken air conditioning is the number one maintenance issue we see in summer.
Changing federal energy guidelines make air conditioning repair more difficult than it used to be. You can’t just replace a part or squirt in some Freon, more often these days, the newer, more efficient parts require changing the compressor or making other major changes to upgrade the entire system.
it is a landlord’s responsibility is to “repair or remedy” any condition that “materially affects the physical health and safety of an ordinary tenant.
Some judges, will rule that air conditioning in August definitely affects the health and safety of a resident. Some will say that people have lived without AC for decades, so just deal with it.
We advise people who are signing a lease to “take a step back” and think about what is most important in a living situation. It’s going to be different for each person. So, if you know you are heat sensitive and will be highly distraught without air conditioning, specify in the lease: “The landlord will maintain the air conditioning in good working order.”
If a landlord is unwilling to put something in writing that matters to you, it’s a red flag. A good landlord, may be more important than a good property.
About air conditioning in particular, If the A/C system was there at the inception of the tenancy, even without a lease, it is included just as if it were a refrigerator or a stove.A lease, however, could exclude the A/C from maintenance or repairs so it could fail during the tenancy and the landlord may not have to repair it.
In the Heat of Crisis
So, what’s a tenant to do when the air conditioning system is broken or the air ducts are dirty?
You are definitely not the first person to have landlord troubles, and you are not alone.
We advise strongly that no tenant should take action against a landlord without seeking legal advice first. There’s big money at stake for the landlord, who is running a business. The tenant, who is in “the business of living,” may be inclined to “wing it,” but it rarely works out. Common sense or something that worked for a friend or something on the internet may or may not apply in any particular case, and could, in fact, work against the tenant’s best interest.
The biggest mistake is tenants who send mean-spirited, threatening letters to landlords which misinterpret the law and the true legal positions of the parties. Those letters always end up in court, and make a tenant look unreasonable. Then, when the landlord says nicely how hard he tried to work with the tenant – who was uncooperative and inappropriate – the landlord’s position is more convincing.
As noted above, state and local law will dictate the specific steps a tenant can take in order to pursue a landlord who is not responding to a known problem. In some states it is OK to withhold rent or to “fix and deduct” but only under very specific conditions.
Withholding rent is always dangerous for the tenant’s case. You have got to make sure you have a strong position, You wouldn’t test a rowboat after you took it out into the middle of the lake, would you? Get advice first.
Despite the difference between state laws, some practices apply across all tenant/landlord conflicts.
- Consult your lease. Re-read the fine print to clarify what the landlord is responsible for and how you are expected to notify the management of problems.
- Keep a log that documents the history of the problem. After a while, you won’t remember which day you called for the first time or whether it’s the third or fourth time you’ve left a message.
- Communicate as much as possible in short, polite letters. It is best to send certified letters and keep the receipt of delivery. Keep copies of all letters you send.
- Always consult a lawyer, a housing counselor, or a consumer affairs advocate before acting against your landlord. Even though it may seem logical to withhold rent or do the repair yourself, doing so can inadvertently hurt your case and reduce your rights.
In any case, whenever you have a problem with your air conditioning system or need your air ducts clean, AC Services Florida can provide the tenant with written estimate for the landlord to approve and once job is done we will provide a full report of the findings and repairs.