AC Outage Could Bring Rent Strike

by Robert Griswold

Tenant displaced from unit fights for compensation

by Robert Griswold

Arm wrestlingQ: Our son is renting a condo in an area where it gets very hot in the summer. Two weeks ago, he came home from work to find that his air conditioning unit was not working. It was after hours on Friday evening and he tried to reach the property management agency to have them check it out, but no one was in so he left a voicemail message on their answering machine. They have no emergency number and the office is open only Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. The temperature reached nearly 110 degrees that Saturday and Sunday.

My son was inconvenienced — he couldn’t stay in the rental unit because the heat was unbearable. We watched his dogs for him and he spent the weekend at a friend’s house and went to work from his friend’s house. He was able to reach the property management office on Monday and they came right out to fix the air conditioning unit that same day.

He called them on Tuesday to talk with them about his inconvenience and the disruption to his life. He is trying to get compensated for having to spend time away from the place he was renting, having someone else take care of his dogs, and the physical and emotional strain of not being able to live in a home that he is paying to rent.

The property management company said not having air conditioning did not constitute an emergency, not even when it is 110 degrees. They claim that they actually do have an “on-call” person that regularly checks the answering machine throughout the weekend. But because their air conditioning company charges extra on weekends the earliest his air conditioning unit could have been fixed was on Monday, and that is what they scheduled.

He feels very strongly that he is entitled to significant compensation because his air conditioning unit ran for six hours straight to get the condo down from 96 degrees to 82. What are his legal rights? Can he withhold his rent for next month? Should he hire a lawyer? Maybe he should simply move out?

A: Clearly you and your son are very passionate about this issue and there is no doubt that he was inconvenienced. With temperatures over 100 degrees it can be very uncomfortable without the benefits of air conditioning. However, air conditioning is not automatically a required element of habitability in all areas, including some areas where it can get very hot at certain times of the year. So I would suggest he contact a local landlord-tenant attorney to see if there are some local laws that the attorney feels are applicable.

But let me offer a perspective as a property manager for the last 30 years, including many years in areas that can be very hot especially in the summer. I think your expectations may simply be too high.

The fact is that air conditioning units can and do go out on a Friday evening. Some landlords and property managers think that is when a disproportionate number of these types of problems seem to occur. Most repair personnel work Monday through Friday, and the few that may be willing to work on weekends or evenings will charge 1.5 to two times the usual labor rates, which are already quite high.

Thus, it isn’t reasonable to expect that an air conditioning unit that just happens to go out on a Friday afternoon could not be repaired till Monday. I understand the high temperatures and the impact on his personal living arrangements, but I think the response to this complaint by the landlord was very reasonable.

These things happen and unless you can show that the landlord was negligent and his failure to properly perform maintenance caused the air conditioning unit to break, then you have to understand that it takes time to respond to these situations.

In cases where such an outage constitutes an emergency — such as a threat to health or safety — the landlord may be required to make immediate repairs or to reimburse the tenant for emergency repairs. Again, check with a legal expert on applicable laws.

It may be appropriate for his landlord to offer him a rent credit for his inconvenience for the two or three days that he was without air conditioning. But your ideas of withholding next month’s rent or moving out seem to be overreactions.

We all face these types of inconveniences in daily life. Who hasn’t had a delayed airplane flight that led to missing a connection and completely disrupting one’s plans? But does that mean the passenger is entitled to a full refund? I know with my health insurance plan it can take days to get in to see someone and in the meantime I am in pain and have to limit my activities. But I certainly can’t refuse to pay my next month’s premium just because they couldn’t see me immediately. I can cancel my health insurance policy or vow to never fly on that same airline in the future, but moving out over this incident also seems to be adding to your son’s inconvenience.

I suggest your son sends a polite letter to the property management firm outlining the inconvenience and ask for a rent credit for the two days that he was without air conditioning.

This column on issues confronting tenants and landlords is written by property manager Robert Griswold, author of “Property Management for Dummies” and “Property Management Kit for Dummies” and co-author of “Real Estate Investing for Dummies.”
E-mail your questions to Rental Q&A at [email protected]. Questions should be brief and cannot be answered individually.
Copyright 2009 Inman News

See Robert Griswold’s feature Landlord Too Lax on Noise Enforcement.

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