Legal Questions Answered By Griffin & Murphy, LLP

Griffin & Murphy, LLP, is a boutique law firm in Washington, D.C. concentrating its practice in real estate law (including development, finance, leasing, zoning and condominium conversions), as well as estate planning and probate, civil litigation, and business law. The attorneys of Griffin & Murphy, LLP are licensed to practice law in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia. Griffin and Murphy, LLP was founded in 1981.

Here’s the legal response to a Dear PoP question we looked at last week.


I have been renting a house for the last four months and the owner of the house promised verbally and written in email that there would be air conditioning installed in the house. She continues to say she is contacting contractors and waiting to hear back since day one and the unit has not been installed, nor is the fan in the house powerful enough to circulate air.

Do you know what rights we have legally as far as withholding rent/complaints/etc? I have researched the DC tenant laws and it mentions a potential situation like this – an amenity that is not stated in the lease but was supposed to be supplied by the owner upon signing the contract. The fan not working to circulate air has been in issue since day one as well.

Do we sweat and wait or can we take action?

Answer after the jump.


Although the housing regulations in nearly all cities require landlords to prove sufficient heat for their rental accommodations, most do not require them to provide air conditioning. Because that is the case in the District of Columbia, you will have to rely on general contract law to determine whether your landlord is in fact obligated to install the air conditioning and if you have the right to withhold rent for her failure to do so.

You mentioned that your landlord promised verbally and in email to install air conditioning in the house. Were these promises made before you signed the lease? Was there an advertisement to which you responded that made representations about air conditioning in the house? If the answer to either of these questions is yes, you have a strong argument that air conditioning was one of the amenities you bargained for when you agreed to rent the house. You will want to look to see if there is language in the lease that states that the terms of the lease agreement supersede any verbal or written promises made by the landlord, and if it does, your landlord can claim that she is not obligated to provide air conditioning to you based on that provision.

If the landlord promised to install air conditioning after you signed the lease agreement, I think your position isn’t as strong unless you provided some consideration for that promise – i.e., you agreed to pay a higher rental rate and/or do something for the landlord in return for the extra amenity.

Although your landlord might not be legally required to install air conditioning in the house, there are a number of things you can do to give yourself some leverage to hasten the installation. First, you could check with the Department of Housing and Community Development Rental Accommodations Division to see if you landlord is properly registered with the city (failure to register would subject the landlord to fines). Second, you could ask the city for a housing code compliance inspection and see what shows up on the report. If there are code compliance issues, you could withhold rent and wait for the landlord to sue you. Once a suit for possession is filed, rent prospectively would then be paid into the Registry of the Court until the code violations are corrected. Usually, when things get to this point, the landlord settles with the tenant and in this case the practical solution would be that you would probably get your air conditioning.

Please send any legal questions relating to real estate, rentals, buildings, renovations or other legal items to princeofpetworth (at) gmail (dot) com, each week one question will be featured. Ed. Note Griffin & Murphy is a PoP advertiser. You can find previous questions featured here.

This response was prepared by Mark G. Griffin and Patrick D. Blake of Griffin & Murphy, LLP. The material contained in this response has been prepared for informational purposes only and should not be relied upon as legal advice or as a substitute for a consultation with a qualified attorney. Nothing in this response should be considered as either creating an attorney-client relationship between the reader and Griffin & Murphy, LLP or as rendering of legal advice for any specific matter.

29 Comment

  • Implied warranty of habitability. Having lived in Arizona, I find the heat and humidity in DC oppressive. You have a strong case for a breach of this warranty, regardless of DC’s lack of explicit mention of air conditioning. Take some temperature readings in the apartment during the day. Record the humidity listed on one of the websites. This is plenty of evidence of breach of DC’s implied warranty of habitability.

    • Doubtful. While it may be uncomfortable and not what you’re used to, mankind has survived warmer temperatures than this. There’s a difference between being a little sweaty and freezing to death.

      • Agreed – while it’s humid here, plenty of people live in DC (and points south) without AC, and it’s not a problem. Turn on a fan, or buy a cheap window unit on Craigslist.

        At least the temperature doesn’t go over 100 here like it does in Arizona. That’s the worst.

  • Additionally, other then having the council amend the statute, there’s no other way to get the courts the recognize the necessity of air conditioning as being incorporated in the implied warranty without someone challenging the lack of it.

    • Native American JD,

      Temperature and humidity readings ?

      How about taking some personal responsibility ?

      All of life, even the weather, is litigious to you.

      You’re full of it, and I would not rent to you.

      • I know. He would litigate against acts of God if the authorities could only track down Mother Nature.

        • There is no god. I would litigate that such a defense is contrary to the First Amendment.

          Arizona and some of the other Southwestern states recognize air conditioning as part of the implied warranty. Given the humidity in DC, I see no reason for a limited application. My apartment, before the complex turned on the AC at my insistence, was registering 92 degrees at 5:30 pm, with windows open. That is uninhabitable.

  • “Although your landlord might not be legally required to install air conditioning in the house, there are a number of things you can do to give yourself some leverage to hasten the installation” Wow, what an advice. Rat the landlord even if there isn’t an agreement just to get your way. Brilliant just brilliant.

    • Yeah, not a fan of that advice. Seems like bullying to me.

    • This is why people hate lawyers. And as an attorney, I fully understand why.

      Disregarding that nasty and aggressive suggestion, the lawyers basically said what all the commenters did: you don’t have a leg to stand on, stop whining, and buy some window AC units.

      (Apologies if this posts twice. Having Captcha issues.)

    • They’re lawyers. Do you actually expect them to be ethical human beings who only tell the truth?


  • Reason 1,000,001 why not to be a landlord in DC: this post.

    • I believe that would be 1,000,001 not to be a shitty landlord and promise a/c if you don’t intend to follow through… it motivates your tenants to hold you accountable. There are plenty of problems with being a DC landlord, but this is retribution…if there aren’t any code violations and its registered as a rental… the tenant will have next to no leverage if the lease doesn’t have a “cool enjoyment” clause…

    • Yeah, but if the LL is up to code (as he ought to be) then this won’t be a problem. If he’s not, then he has no one to blame but himself, right?

  • Great advice…tie your landlord up with addressing any code violations. Clearly, no AC isn’t a code violation, so your only complaint with the rental has suddenly become your landlord’s lowest priority.

  • I tend to agree than an uncooled apt in DC summer is uninhabitable, but that said window units can work just fine. As everyone commented on the earlier thread, just buy a couple and withold the cost from the rent.

    • And then watch the landlord withhold that cost from the return of the deposit. That’s what I would do.

      • Then you’d probably deserve the hardball tactics advised by the lawyers. Be cooperative and people will cooperate with you.

        • I don’t think that tenants should decide, essentially, how you spend your money. They are making a several hundred dollar purchase without consent. If someone purchased something that expensive for me without permission, they are taking the risk of not being reimbursed for it.

  • The tenants are deciding – they landlord promised AC with the apt.

  • *aren’t deciding, I mean.

  • Bringing the law into this can have no possible good outcome for the tenants.

    If this rental is not legal (like the vast majority of single-family homes and basements in DC) then basically you are going to get yourself evicted.

    It is unlikely that a typical home that’s not already tenant-legal can be easily updated to meet those requirements, which could involve extensive rewiring, plumbing, and other upgrades.

    You won’t get those things. Even if such work could ever be done while you were living there, and they had any intention of remodeling your cheap rental, you would then also get a huge rent increase.

    You will screw over your landlord extensively, and you will have to look for another place to live. Biting off your nose to spite your face.

    Is this problem really one that warrants such a confrontation? Why don’t you just ask your landlord to buy a couple window units if you’re too cheap to get them yourself? Negotiate a small rent break?

    So many things are much more easily handled with a conversation than with lawyers.

    • I totally agree, as an attorney myself I say keep them out as long as possible. Once you call out the dogs the other side will become just as combative.

  • DC heat and humidity is not unhabitable, though it is uncomfortable. I own my own a PW rowhouse and don’t have central air. Open the windows at night for cool-air circulation, and keep the curtains drawn during the day to keep the sunlight out (your at work anyways, right?). Buy a fan or window unit to cool you down if it is really too hot. I doubt you would be happy if your landlord actually put in the central air while you live there, construction dust is one of the worst evils! Sounds like a good reason to find a new place for next Summer.

  • If it makes you feel any better, we have AC in our rental, but its so poorly installed that it may as well not be there. Asked the landlord about window units to no avail.

    We’re just going to bite the bullet and get the window unit for our bedroom–probably the solution that will leave you less stressed and angry, especially if your options aren’t looking good.

    And by the way–we’re both lawyers.

  • I just googled around to see what I could find on the web, and I saw this:

    DCRA Notifies Residents of Air Conditioning Regulations

    (Washington, DC) Does your landlord provide air conditioning? If so, your unit must be kept at least 15 degrees cooler than the outside temperature.

    If you rent an apartment or house in the District, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs (DCRA) regulates air conditioning. If your lease includes air conditioning through individual units or a central air conditioning system, then the inside temperature must be at least 15 degrees cooler than the outside temperature.

    Individual units or central systems must be inspected each year, between September 1 and May 1. This inspection must be done by a master refrigeration and air conditioning mechanic. Owners must file inspection results with DCRA within 15 days of inspection.

    Failure to comply with a Notice of Violation may result in the District imposing a fine of $1,000 and imposing penalties and fees on the owner. Residents can report violations by calling (202) 442-4400.

    (Air conditioning regulations are from Section 510.10 of the DCMR14: Title 14, chapter 14.)

    Does anyone even know what this means? 15F lower than outside? so, if it’s 80F, my A/C has to get down to 65F? I guess if it’s 100F out, 85 is reasonable.

  • OK I am not a lawyer and really late in posting, but this was posted on DCist:

    “According to The Housing Regulations of the District of Columbia (Section 510.10 of the DCMR14: Title 14, chapter 14), “The owner of a rental habitation, who provides air conditioning as a service either through individual air conditioning units or a central air conditioning system, shall maintain such unit or system in safe and good working condition so that it provides an inside temperature at least fifteen degrees Fahrenheit less than the outside temperature.” If your landlord is cheaping out and depriving you of that sweet, recirculated cold air, you can call DCRA at (202) 442-4400 to report the violation.”

    Maybe just buy a window unit and sue in small claims, burden of proof is not as great in criminal court. Or write a letter with the above passage included.

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