Dear PoP – Tenant heating question

It doesn't Last long
Photo from PoPville flickr user District Shots

“Dear PoP,

We live in a large rowhouse served by a downstairs heating system (first floor: kitchen, dining and living rooms) and an upstairs heating system (bathrooms and all 5 bedrooms). The upstairs heating system (a heat pump) failed three weeks ago. The downstairs heating system has experienced problems but is running at the moment. Without the upstairs system, the bedrooms are about 55 degrees. I can get mine to 62 if I run my space heater full time. The downstairs is usually a balmy 65 degrees (setting the thermostat higher causes the system to run constantly due to the house’s poor windows and insulation).

The landlord contacted a contractor after the system failed. The contractor has made several visits, each time a different technician. Each technician claims to know what is wrong and how to fix it, usually with a new part. We wait a week for the part to arrive, then another technician comes and installs it. Nothing so far has fixed the system, and each technician finds something else wrong with it. First it was a sensor problem, then a different sensor problem, then a circuitboard, then the thermostat, then the fan motor, then something else. The blizzards didn’t help the matter. The last technician to come indicated the system is somehow clogged by the snow.

We continue to communicate with the landlord. She says she is unable to come to the house to meet the technicians, so one of us roommates has to scramble whenever the contractor calls to say their van is on the way. We all work full time and cannot keep leaving our jobs in the middle of the day. Another contractor visit is scheduled for later this week, but if it fails to get the system running again, we’re approaching a month with 55 degree bedrooms and bathrooms while paying full rent (and the landlord just raised rent 4% in October). We are considering withholding some or all of our rent to protest the conditions and ensure the landlord has a concrete incentive to get the system fixed. Does anyone have experience with doing this? Could it backfire, and if so, in what ways? What does the law say about situations like this, where the house is technically livable but unpleasant? Any other suggestions about how to deal with the problem?”

Should they withhold rent? Anyone face a similar situation?

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