A version of this story was originally published on Curbed NY.
Finding a rental apartment can be quite an ordeal. But once you've found a place, negotiated the terms of the lease, and moved in, your problems aren't necessarily over. Because now it's time for everything in the apartment to stop working.
The good news: Your landlord is responsible for making repairs to essential services such as heat, hot water, ceilings, etc. The bad news: Sometimes it's not so easy to make him or her actually do that.
If your landlord is refusing—or simply ignoring your polite requests—to make necessary repairs, then consider these steps (which do not constitute actual legal advice):
1) Raise the issue
If your usual way of getting in touch with the landlord—be it a call, text, or knock-on-the-door—isn’t working, it’s time to put it all down in writing. Detail what the problem is, when it started, and when you first notified your landlord. Be as specific as possible in terms of dates and what needs fixing. Send the letter certified mail and request a return receipt so that you can prove that your landlord received it, if it comes to that. Also keep a copy for yourself.
2) File an official complaint
If your landlord doesn't respond to the letter, or fails to make the necessary repairs, you can file a complaint with the appropriate city government agency. In New York, for example, the Department of Housing, Preservation and Development deals with general building upkeep problems (heat, hot water, leaks, etc.).
Other relevant agencies include the Department of Health & Mental Hygiene (window guards, rodent and insect infestations, mold and asbestos), the Department of Buildings (unsafe structures), and the Department of Environmental Protection (noise and odors from neighboring businesses). When you file your complaint, make sure to get a complaint number, as you may have to call back multiple times to actually get an inspector to show up.
If worst comes to worst, you can sue your landlord in Housing Court. At this point, it would behoove you to consult an actual tenants' rights lawyer. A good place to start is a legal aid organization in your city.
What if the thing that needs fixing is just an appliance?
Any appliance that came with your apartment, such as a stove or refrigerator, is the landlord's responsibility to fix. But once again, making that happen is often easier said than done. Go through the above steps, writing a letter (with proof of mailing, and a copy) and, if necessary, raising a complaint with the appropriate city agency.
If you decide to just replace the appliance yourself, you can deduct the cost of the replacement from your rent, but then your landlord can, in turn, sue you for nonpayment. If you end up in court, you'll have to show that you acted reasonably (via documentation) and made multiple attempts to get the landlord to take care of the problem. Even if this approach proves successful, you may still end up on tenant screening reports, so be warned.