How Does a Tenant Use Repair and Deduct?
In many states, "repair and deduct" is a tactic tenants can use to force a landlord to make necessary repairs. When there is some repair to a rental unit that must be made, and the landlord does not make it herself, the tenant may hire someone to repair the unit and deduct the cost of the repairs from the rent. However, a tenant must be very careful before using this strategy because withholding rent is a serious action which could result in an eviction.
When a Tenant May Use Repair and Deduct
First, as a general rule, a tenant can only use repair and deduct when the landlord has a legal duty to make the repair. The legal duty can come from two places: either the landlord's duty to repair is listed in the lease, or the affected part of the rental unit makes the unit uninhabitable.
Every rental unit comes with an implied warranty of habitability. What exactly makes a unit habitable varies by state, but usually it means that the unit must be structurally sound, have hot and cold running water, heated, and generally free of pests.
If the repair does not affect the unit's habitability, and is not covered in the lease, then the landlord does not need to fix it. A tenant can ask her landlord to make those repairs, but if the landlord refuses, there is very little else she can do besides move out (as permitted by the lease).
How to Use Repair and Deduct
Once you're sure that the landlord has a duty to repair a defect, inform the landlord that the repair needs to be made. Most landlords specify how to let them know of these defects. There is no need to start off these discussions by threatening to withhold rent. Most landlords have no interest in letting serious repairs slide, since they know that procrastinating on repairs can cause a bigger mess in the future.
However, if the landlord does not agree to make the repairs, then you start the repair and deduct process. In most cases, this is done by sending a letter to the landlord describing the defect in the apartment, what needs to be done to repair it, and a cost estimate. Give the landlord a deadline by which to respond. Make sure the deadline is not too short -- it has to be enough time for the landlord to receive the message and send a response back. Then, indicate in your letter that if you do not hear from the landlord by your deadline, you will make the repair yourself and deduct the cost from your rent. Remember to keep copies of all correspondence, as well as all of your receipts so you can prove how much you spent.
See FindLaw's section on Repairs and Maintenance in rental units for more information.