Who Can Tenants Call When a Landlord Won't Fix Things?

Last Updated: October 4, 2023 by Roberto Valenzuela

When a landlord won’t make required repairs after notice, tenants have a number of people they could potentially call for help, such as local government officials.

The Landlord

When the landlord won’t fix things, sometimes the person to call is… the landlord. Rentals are a business relationship, but landlords are still human. One more reminder may be all it takes.

Before reporting a failure to repair, it’s also important for tenants to check that they’ve followed all rules for notice and waiting. Landlords don’t have to fix an issue unless the repair request meets all legal requirements.

Local, State, and Federal Authorities

Most often, when the landlord doesn’t make proper repairs, a tenant’s best option is to involve government officials. Depending on the situation, a tenant may have options at the local, state, or even federal level.

State and Local Code Enforcement

Local authorities are typically the most effective government agents in a situation where a landlord fails to do timely repairs in good faith. Every municipality has some officials who can act on code complaints. Smaller towns may do this through city hall or the fire department. Larger cities have dedicated housing or code enforcement divisions.

State Consumer Protection Divisions

State consumer protection agencies can sometimes help with repair issues. Some states, like Massachusetts and Hawaii, have consumer laws against certain false rental claims. These laws give consumer agencies the power to investigate unlicensed or uninhabitable property.

Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, or HUD, has extensive powers in certain rental situations. HUD has limited jurisdiction, but oversight is often stricter than state and local law. If a tenant’s housing may be under a federal program like Section 8, it’s worth checking to see whether HUD can help with the case.

Licensed Contractors

Tenants can sometimes hire a contractor to fix problems that a landlord won’t. Many states let tenants deduct the “actual and reasonable cost” of repairs from the rent. Tenants can do this instead of or in addition to reporting a landlord.

In many states, like Colorado, tenants must have licensed contractors make any repairs. Licensed contractors carry an insurance bond to cover property damage and workplace injuries, and itemize work so it’s easy to prove specific costs. The law also presumes professional repairs meet certain basic quality standards.

What About Unlicensed Repairs?

Licensed contractors are expensive, but unlicensed repairs are almost never a legally safe option. Many states outright prohibit unlicensed repairs. Even where legally allowed, such as Pennsylvania or Texas, it’s risky for tenants to make unlicensed repairs to anything that might impact health or safety. Tenants are often liable for all harms related to an unlicensed repair process.

In addition, insurance usually won’t cover injuries from amateur work, and in most states unlicensed repairs don’t qualify for rent deduction. However, in places with low deductible amounts, like Rhode Island, unlicensed repairs may still be the tenant’s best option.

A Lawyer

If the landlord won’t fix things, the tenant may have to call a lawyer. Although a lawyer is expensive, lawyers are most effective when not used as a last resort. Legal advice sought early can save huge headaches down the road. In many cases a lawyer can resolve the tenant’s issues with nothing more than a few well-worded letters.

There’s a popular misconception that hiring a lawyer often leads to suing the landlord. Getting legal advice usually does not result in a court filing. The expense and disruption of a lawsuit mean it’s usually worth avoiding, even if the tenant may have a good case.

While a lawsuit is often not the best option for a tenant, getting a lawyer’s opinion is always valuable when there are questions about a rental situation. A lawyer’s professional knowledge is critical for determining a tenant’s rights, and protecting them.