I rent an apartment that needs a lot of repairs. What are my landlord’s duties, and what can I do if he does not fix the apartment?

When you lease an apartment or other dwelling, you are guaranteed that the property will be habitable and in good condition. This guarantee is called the warranty of habitability. Even if those words are not expressly stated in the rental agreement, the landlord is required by law to ensure the property meets certain standards. To maintain the property, the landlord must ensure that the following duties are fulfilled: 

•The apartment must meet health, fire, and housing codes; however, the landlord is released from this responsibility if failure to meet the codes’ standards are due to your conduct or an invited guest’s conduct; 
•The common areas such as hallways, entrances, and laundry rooms must be clean, safe, and in good repair; 
•All electric, plumbing, sanitary, heating, ventilating, air-conditioning, and other facilities and appliances, including elevators, must be kept in good repair;  
•In multiple housing units, the landlord must provide and maintain appropriate conveniences for garbage removal;  
•There must be a supply of running water with an adequate amount of hot water at all times, and reasonable heat between October 1st and April 1st, unless the dwelling is constructed so that installation of heat and running water is under the exclusive control of the tenant; 
•The landlord must fulfill any additional obligations contracted to in the rental agreement. 

If your landlord has not upheld his part of the lease agreement or has violated the warranty of habitability, you may be able to sue for damages or vacate your apartment without being held to the lease. To obtain a legal remedy, the violation must be substantial and affect basic living requirements. For example, heating, running water, garbage, and sometimes a working elevator are considered essential living requirements. However, a cracked wall, a water leak, or not painting a room are only considered minor violations unless the problem is of such proportion that it affects the habitability of your home.  

You also have certain duties to the landlord to fulfill before you are entitled to a legal remedy. Before a court will award damages or release you from the rental agreement, you must show that you gave the landlord notice of the problem and a reasonable opportunity to repair the defect. Also, you must be up to date on paying rent. If you have not been paying rent to your landlord and have not been reserving rent in an escrow account–even if it is because the apartment is in poor condition–it will look like you are bringing a suit against your landlord to avoid payment. This will severely affect your credibility in court.  

If you choose not to pay rent in an attempt to pressure your landlord to improve the apartment, it is vital that you put the money in an escrow account and not use it. That way, your credibility will be preserved, and if your case is not successful, you will be able to quickly pay back any rent you owe to the landlord. If the court finds that you do not owe any rent, the money will be returned to you.

See also our publication Tenants & Landlords: Rights and Responsibilities

For more information, see: § 37-6-30 (2015); Teller v. McCoy, 162 W. Va. 367, 253 S.E.2d 114 (1978).