Dear Consumer Ed: 

My apartment flooded because of a plumbing issue with the upstairs neighbor.  My bathroom caved in, my walls and ceilings got soaked with water, and my carpet was ruined.  The apartment management was great for the first four days, but now they say I have to find a place to stay on my own dime.  They say the apartment is safe.  However, there is no carpet, the apartment is still drying out and smells, and they still have all my stuff covered in plastic.  What can I do?  (I do not have renter’s insurance, but I am now going to get it.)  

Consumer Ed says: 

You have several options, but you must give your landlord a reasonable time to make the repairs before pursuing any of them.  Determining how long a “reasonable time” is depends on how serious the condition is, and the nature of the repairs.  Based on the extent of your damages, it sounds reasonable that repairing your bathroom, drying out your apartment, and replacing your carpets might take longer than four days.  Since you’ve already notified your landlord of the condition that needs to be repaired, you have two options if a reasonable time has passed.  The first is to hire an attorney and sue your landlord for damages caused by his failure to repair your apartment.  

A second option is what’s known as a “repair and deduct”. In this scenario, you would have the needed repair completed by a competent, licensed repair person at a reasonable cost.  If you pursue this remedy, you should notify your landlord in writing that you plan to use the “repair and deduct” remedy before moving forward.  Also, remember to keep copies of all receipts, and ask the repair person for a statement detailing the work performed and the problem corrected.  Note that the only repairs you should have done are those that get the problem fixed; you cannot ask your landlord to pay for any other improvements to your apartment.  Also, be careful to replace damaged work or property items with those of like and not greater quality or value, because your landlord will not be responsible for the increased cost of such upgrades. After the repairs are complete, subtract the cost of these repairs from your next month’s rent check.  In addition to the reduced rent check, send your landlord copies of all the repair receipts.  By providing both, your landlord will be able to see that the difference between the reduced rent check and what you’d normally pay is reflected in the costs listed on the receipts.

Additionally, there might be city and/or county ordinances or codes, which regulate residential rental housing in your area.  To find out if your area has any of these ordinances or codes, call the city hall or county court house and ask for the building inspector or the code enforcement officer.  You may want to contact the housing code inspector if you live in an area with city, town or county housing or health and safety codes.  Your landlord is required to comply with any such local housing codes. 

If the damage from the flooding is so bad that it is impossible, not just uncomfortable, to live in your apartment, and your landlord has not repaired the apartment in a reasonable time, this could amount to what is called a “constructive eviction.”  A constructive eviction relieves you from having to pay rent.  To qualify as a constructive eviction, the landlord’s failure to repair must have made your apartment an unfit place to live, such that ordinary repairs would not make your apartment fit to live in again.  As with the repair and deduct option, before you pursue this route you should make sure you get written assessments of the damage, as well as repair estimates from competent professional contractors.

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