Legal Reasons to Withhold Rent: What Every Tenant Should Know

As a tenant, there are certain scenarios where withholding rent can be legal. Learn more about when it is okay to do so and alternative ways to resolve rental issues.

By
Nichole Stohler
|
Last Updated
September 5, 2023
Legal Reasons to Withhold Rent: What Every Tenant Should Know

While we are not recommending tenants withhold rent often, in some situations, it can be a legal strategy used to safeguard their rights if a landlord is not fulfilling their duties. Before doing so, though, it's essential to remember that tenant laws around late rent payments differ from one state to another. 

Are you grappling with maintenance issues that are making your rented home inhabitable? Knowing the specific legal grounds that apply in your state can guide your decisions and ensure you're protected if your landlord doesn't meet their responsibilities. 

Join us as we delve into the legal reasons to withhold rent, and address your challenges moving forward with assurance.

Why would you consider withholding rent?

If your landlord doesn't maintain the rental unit properly, you may be able to legally refuse to pay your rent. However, you have several other options to address the issue and ensure your living conditions are up to agreed-upon standards. The approach we recommend trying first is initiating a conversation with your landlord where you clearly express any concerns or problems you've encountered.

Continuing to pay rent while directly communicating with the landlord increases the likelihood of achieving a mutually beneficial resolution.

When can you withhold rent?

In the unfortunate circumstance that discussions with your landlord don't prompt an improvement in the condition of the rental unit, you might then consider rent withholding: temporarily suspending rent payment until the necessary repairs are complete.

The term "withholding" can be misleading, because you can't actually stop paying rent. In many states and cities, you deposit the withheld rent with a court, a neutral third party, or in an escrow account established by a local court or housing agency until the repairs are complete.

Laws regarding the withholding of rent vary from state to state. While some states grant tenants the right to withhold rent under certain circumstances, others don't have a provision for rent withholding. And then, in other states, tenants are allowed to repair maintenance issues themselves and deduct the repair costs from the next month's rent amount.

To avoid eviction proceedings, research state laws on withholding. To really cover your bases, meet with your local housing authority for advice when trying to determine whether you can lawfully withhold rent.

Note that reasons for withholding rent only apply if the issues you experience are not a result of your actions. For example, if you cause damage to your apartment, you are not justified in withholding rent.

Different reasons for rent withholding

Tenants might contemplate withholding rent for a variety of reasons, including:

  • Non-livable conditions: When the unit lacks essentials like heat, water, or electricity, it can pose health or safety hazards.
  • Failure to make repairs: The property is unlivable if the landlord refuses to fix necessary maintenance, such as sewage leaks or major structural defects.
  • Harassment or retaliation: This includes landlord harassment or discrimination based on characteristics such as religion, race, gender, or disability.
  • Unresolved noise issues: If the tenant's enjoyment of the unit is significantly affected by any noise disturbances from neighbors or areas owned by the landlord.
  • Safety concerns: The rental property has security and safety-related issues; for example, the absence of smoke detectors, faulty locks, or lack of proper lighting on the rental unit.
  • Pest infestation: A severe pest infestation problem that threatens health or safety risk is a possible reason for rent withholding until the landlord effectively solves the problem.
  • Mold or mildew issues: Landlord's failure to remedy excessive mold or mildew growth that can harm the tenant's health.
  • Health hazards: Harmful substances, like lead paint or asbestos, can threaten the tenant's health.
  • Violation of privacy rights:  Repeated breaches of the tenant's privacy rights through unauthorized entry without proper notice.

It is extremely important to note that certain states and cities do not permit rent withholding under any circumstances.

Research the specific regulations in your area before considering rent withholding. Consult your local housing agency or seek professional advice to understand your rights and legal responsibilities.

What is the process for rent withholding?

Laws and circumstances differ from state to state. If tenants withhold rent due to unresolved issues with their landlord, depositing the withheld rent into an escrow account is generally recommended. This account holds the rent while you address the concerns, demonstrating your intention to pay as you resolve the dispute.

The money stays in the escrow account. Once the dispute gets resolved, either through repairs, reaching an agreement, or a court decision, the resolution terms may mandate that the funds be released at that time. For example, if the conflict involved repairs, the courts could release the funds once the repairs are to your satisfaction.

Some states may allow for a decrease or reduction in rent for the time when your home was not livable, starting when you notified the landlord of the problem. This process could involve a court, or you may reach an agreement with your landlord about it.

How does rent withholding work?

When a landlord fails to address a tenant's complaints or maintenance problems that affect the habitability of the rental property, the tenant might want to avoid paying their rent until the issue is taken care of. In these circumstances, the sequence of events a tenant would take might look something like this:

1. Identify the issues

Tenants should first identify and document the problems that make the rental property uninhabitable or threaten health and safety. These issues should directly affect the unit's habitability.

2. Notify the landlord

Once you identify issues, tenants must notify their landlord in writing about the problems and request repairs. Send this via certified mail so that you have a return receipt. This notice should state the specific issues and provide a reasonable deadline for the landlord to fix them.

3. Allow a reasonable time for repairs

After notifying the landlord, tenants must give them a reasonable amount of time to have the problem repaired. The exact timeframe depends on local laws and the severity of the problems. Issues with simple solutions could take just a few days to fix, while serious issues could take up to 30 days to resolve.

4. Document communication and efforts

Throughout the process, tenants should maintain documentation of all communication with the landlord, including copies of written notices and emails. Additionally, it's important to document the efforts made by the tenant to resolve the issues, such as providing access to the property for repairs.

5. Withhold and set aside rent

If the landlord fails to address the problems within the specified timeframe and your state and local laws allow, you may withhold rent until the repairs are made according to the rental agreement. Tenants are required to set aside the withheld rent in a separate bank account.

6. Seek legal action if necessary

If the property manager fails to make the repairs, tenants may consider pursuing legal action. This could entail filing a complaint with the local housing authority, seeking assistance from a tenant rights organization, or even taking the matter to court.

Not paying rent is typically a tenant's last resort. Approach this route carefully because it can potentially result in an eviction notice if your actions don't align with your state's laws.

Alternatives to withholding rent

If your repair issue is not getting resolved in a timely manner, communicate clearly with your landlord. Reach out to them first to discuss potential solutions and collaborate on finding a timely resolution. Make sure to state your concerns and specific repair requests in writing and maintain a record of all your conversations.

In addition to contacting your landlord, consider contacting local government agencies or tenant advocacy organizations. These resources can provide valuable information about your rights as a tenant and advise you on any legal options. These steps can help to resolve your repair concerns fairly and fully.

Legal reasons for withholding rent FAQs

Do I have to meet any requirements to withhold rent?

Different jurisdictions have specific requirements. Consult local laws or seek professional advice for proper procedures and documentation, such as notifying your landlord about any issues and keeping withheld rent in an escrow account if mandated by law.

How do I legally withhold my rent in California?

If you're a tenant in California and your landlord hasn't made necessary repairs, you may have the right to legally withhold rent. Here's what you need to consider:

First, assess if the repairs needed are significant, as rent withholding is allowed for major repairs that make a unit unlivable, such as a broken heater or severe plumbing issues.

Second, set aside withheld rent, keep the money in a separate account, and don't spend it.

Next, notify your landlord of the problem in writing and explain that you're withholding rent due to the repair problem. Keep a copy for your records.

You can't withhold rent for minor repairs — only severe repairs justify rent withholding. Consult your local housing authority or seek legal advice for more detailed information about your situation.

Nichole Stohler

Nichole co-founded Gateway Private Equity Group, with a history of investments in single-family and multi-family properties, and now a specialization in hotel real estate investments. She is also the creator of NicsGuide.com, a blog dedicated to real estate investing.

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