Frozen water pipe – what are the tenant’s rights?

Photo by PoPville flickr user Jim Havard

“Dear PoPville,

My pipes froze Sunday and no one in our house (I’m downstairs in the English basemen and there are 5 people upstairs) has been able to use the water or bathroom since Sunday morning.

Our landlord sent a contractor out who determined the frozen pipe is under the ground. She has not offered any solutions except that we need to wait until it warms up…which could be 4 or 5 days from now. When I asked about what we are supposed to do for a bathroom she said to go to a friends house and that there is nothing she can do.

I’m wondering if anyone has any insight on this. Do we have to pay a full months rent even though the house has no running water? Does the landlord need to try and fix the problem or is waiting until it warms up a reasonable response? We have been showering and using the bathroom in Giant and WSC in Columbia Heights.

Would love to hear some opinions!”

71 Comment

  • Have another contractor come out to confirm…that sounds wrong to me. Pipes underground are less likely to freeze than ones exposed to the elements.

  • You’ll have to wait it out. I’m pretty sure DC tenant law does not clearly address this situation. You could make an argument about habitability, but this is more of an “act of God,” IMHO. Especially if it’s an underground pipe – there’s no real way to prep for that.
    Our lease states that we are on the hook if certain pipes burst due to our negligence. Specifically, these pipes are those related to hose valves on the exterior of the house. But, to be fair to our landlord, he has shown us how to prep the pipes for winter and sends us reminder emails throughout winter so we remember to close the shut-off valves located in the drywall.

  • I’d contact tenants rights people. Her response is inadequate. What if you were new or didn’t have ready access to the gym? She should be covering a hotel stay and getting this fixed asap. I’m not sure how fixing underground pipes works, so maybe that part is ok but saying go to a friend is ridiculous.

    • She will not ‘cover a hotel.’ Maybe renters insurance would do so but I don’t know for certain. Some break on rent is definitely something that should be offered. Things happen beyond the control of even the most attentive landlord but it sounds like this landlord is taking the steps to restore services.

      By your way of thinking DC Water should have put everyone in Shaw in a hotel in December when the water was contaminated. Adults deal with these sorts of things sometimes.

      • WRONG.
        DC law allows the tenant to rent a hotel room and deduct that cost from the monthly rent until the problem is solved or the tenant is allowed to break the lease and find alternate housing.

  • If a contractor hired by your landlord determined that the frozen pipe is underground, I don’t know if there is anything she can do about it. Maybe call DC water, though you’ll undoubtedly get the same response from them, wait until it warms up. You might ask your landlord from a rent discount on the days you are without water, but don’t simply withhold rent unilaterally. Also, if you have renter’s insurance (which you should) that might pay for a hotel room for you to stay at until the water is working again.

  • All rental units are required to have hot and cold running water. However, what you do from there is a little more squishy. You could theoretically withhold some of your rent for the days you are without water (in this case it’s best to show good faith by putting that withheld money in an escrow account and then applying it toward the next month’s rent). You could withhold rent until the water gets fixed, but hopefully it won’t take that long. You could send your landlord a bill for your gym membership for the month since that’s how you’ve been showering.

    As for what they’re required to do – they ‘re required to provide hot and cold running water. How they fix it doesn’t really matter, but you should get in touch with your landlord and say you know this is not acceptable (call the office of the tenant advocate for information to back you up) and ask what she’s going to do to compensate you. If she says “nothing,” then be prepared with some suggestions of your own.

    • This is exactly why most landlords require renter’s insurance and every tenant should have a policy even if not required. They’re dirt cheap and will almost certainly cover a situation like this where there’s no negligence on the part of the landlord but no obvious way to resolve the issue expeditiously.

      • Thank you. Everyone in an old row home in DC has had to deal with this. Dealing with it now, but I own my house, so there is no withholding a portion of my mortgage. Shit happens. It’s friggin cold outside, but alas it will warm up. And you’ll again be able to flush the toilet. If anything this is a valuable lesson on how much water you ACTUALLY need. Good luck

        • I’m a homeowner who doesn’t have water today either (our go-to contractor lives in Fairfax County where they don’t plow the roads, so we have to wait until the snow melts for him to come). A weird part of me is looking forward to the challenge of living without running water.

      • The owner, in exchange for rent that pays the owner’s mortgage, takes the risk that the pipes may burst, not the tenant. To the OP, see if your lease has provisions regarding the max length of time to make repairs. You could also call the DC Office of the Tenant Advocate or one of several landlord/tenant law clinics at a local law school for advice. Most likely, you will have to wait it out but if you incur reasonable costs during this time (e.g., having to buy items at 7-11 to use the bathroom in the middle of the night) the resources I mentioned above could advise you on whether or not to try deducting this amount from the rent owed.

  • Unless you can get to the pipe to warm it up (space heater or something) you need to wait it out… In the spring, perhaps the owner can find the pipe and cover it so that it may stay a bit warmer for the next winter.. Also, when things start getting cold, leave the water on with a drip, you can avoid freezing pipes that way. If you’re in an old house, you’re in an old house. Comes with the territory.

  • its really not right to put all the burden on the landlord or the tenant. Crap happens, and everyone should try to be an adult about it. Saying “the landlord must provide water. Period.” doesn’t address any of the immediate problems since the landlord isn’t God and probably isn’t wealth enough to eat several nights of a hotel. If they are, then cool. I offered to pay for a hotel for my tenant when this happened to us, but that was because I could afford it and he’s been a fantastic tenant. Treating each other with respect and dignity usually solves almost all problems. For the tenant in this situation, I’d suggest taking care of yourself… Find a gym you can pay for daily until the nightmare is over and then try to work out with the landlord how much they should cover after the fact. Don’t try to extort hundreds of dollars in rent for a situation they didn’t cause. That will just breed mistrust and anger that will probably continue indefinitely.

    • If the landlord isn’t wealthy enough to eat several nights of a hotel then he shouldn’t be a landlord. Being a landlord is owning a business. If his business doesn’t have enough cushion to afford a few hundred in unexpected expenses then he needs to revisit his business plan.

      • There are six people in the house so it would be more like a few thousand, not a few hundred.

        • The landlord would only need to provide the same number of hotel rooms as there are bedrooms. So if they are renting a 6 bedroom house they are pulling in a lot more rent and should still be able to cover it. The true debate is whether no running water makes the unit uninhabitable.

          • Which in this case it would seem it does, so considering that fact, yes the landlord has to provide an alternative arrangement. The tenant could just go get a hotel, but they couldn’t withhold that from rent, they’d have to sue their landlord if they refuse to pay for it.

      • +1 don’t open a business if you can’t take the liabilities for doing so.

  • This sounds all too familiar! Last winter, I went through the exact same nightmare with someone who sounds exactly like (former) horrific landlord! Your apartment must meet certain housing standards at all times (i.e. hot water, electricity, plumbing, etc). For more on this, you should take a look at DC’s “Tenant Survival Guide” – – INCREDIBLY helpful. It also acts as guide for the steps you need to take to get repairs made, withholding rent, deducting rent, etc. I eventually calculated the per diem cost and every day I went without running water and a functioning heater, I deducted from rent – which I explained thoroughly in emails, leading up, during and after rent was due. Which is the last piece of advice I have – write everything in an email and SAVE. Only way to protect yourself! BEST OF LUCK!

    • You sound like a horrible tenant. Pipes freezing doesn’t make for a horrible landlord – this is DC, where it gets cold and homes are old. Tenants have to take all reasonable care of premises which includes letting faucets drip when temperatures drop below freezing. Act like an adult and reasonable human being.

      • -1 for the vitriol, but agreed that freezing pipes are a tenant problem, too. Pipes will freeze if tenants don’t leave faucets at a drip. Landlords should be responsive, but this isn’t all their fault. Responsibility is shared here.

        • you’re right about the vitriol – sorry. as a landlord, i have super insulated all the pipes and reconfigured how the air flows inside to maximize heat and avoid this persistent problem – yet when it gets below about 20, they still freeze. really nothing else i can do, and i rely on the tenants to leave a drip and not turn their heat off. amazing the difference in attitudes you see about this and how willing people are to be understanding or just say, no, you must provide this and i have 0 responsibility or willingness to help my own situation.

          • Accountering

            Totally agree. I have tried everything in my power (short of ripping the entire back wall off) but my kitchen faucet (and that faucet alone!) freezes when it gets super cold.

          • FWIW — and something of a non sequitur — one of my landlord would put notices in our mailboxes when temps were expected to fall, asking us to keep our faucets dripping. It was a small thing that saved us all a lot of headaches.

          • * one of my landlords

          • Lots of tenants in DC (SMP sounds like one of them) are young people who have only lived in dorms/parents’ house/large apartment buildings. They know nothing about home maintenance so you need to tell them exactly what to do. Even things that seem really obvious.

      • Agreed. Did SMP expect their landlord to wave a magic wand and make the problems instantly go away? Or did she believe she was renting a magical fairy castle house that is immune to problems in the first place? I guess if either of these things were stated in the lease she might have a case.

      • Hi “Only Part of the Story” – sorry you feel so offended by my post. Your reaction seems fairly misguided. I had a horrific landlord – for a variety of very serious issues which involved my roommate and I having to seek legal assistance. Yes, weather is out of a landlord’s control but to offer no assistance, to provide no guidance, to show and take zero responsibility is unacceptable. We went five days without water and nearly two weeks with no heat so I empathize with the original poster. My response was intended to provide material support. Tenants have rights and they can pursue whatever action best fits their needs. Good news is – I’m both an adult and reasonable human being. Thanks!

        • Hold on — That’s not what you wrote. The OP described a situation in which pipes froze 2 days ago. You then stated that this was “exactly” like your former landlord, even using exclamation points for emphasis. But you left out some salient points that would make your situation not “exactly” like OP’s and then proceeded to offer advice that may have applied to your situation but may not necessarily work here. And, no, you don’t particularly come across as reasonable. (and, BTW, your advice is wrong — landlords have a duty to make repairs in a reasonable time frame, not instantaneously).

          • And for clarification, I’m not the same Anon as the one who wrote in before, but yet another reader who found your post ridiculous.

        • I did apologize for the name calling above, but not in direct response to you, and wanted to make sure you saw it. Sorry. It does sound like your situation was a bit different than the one here, and truly horrible landlords do deserve to be taken to court. In general though and in the case described here, I think it benefits all parties to discuss reasonably and work with each other before going to authorities. Hope you’re out of your bad situation and stay warm!

  • My pipes froze at the water meter last year, nothing to be done about it. I’d advise you call wasa and turn off the valve at the street (or do it yourself, you just need a pipe wrench), cause when it warms and that blockage gives, the pressure of that water screaming back into the empty pipes in the house could do damage.

    • So if pipes are frozen you’re saying to shut the valve at the entry to the house? How do I know when it’s thawed? Do I leave a faucet open in the house? Basically what steps to take if pipes have frozen and not source of water?

  • From an actual technical standpoint, I’m not sure what you could do. I do also find it unlikely that its frozen underground. If it is though, you either 1. Wait it out and hope, or 2. Jackhammer the basement floor or dig up the front yard to get to the pipe. Either way it will be a few days.

  • ahh DC, where 1 in 3 people is a lawyer, and another third think they are. the best answer is probably found somewhere between all these replies. yes, the tenant has rights, as does the landlord. as always, the best course of action is to use reason and discuss the issue with your landlord. there’s probably a middle ground where the landlord will give you a bit of a credit for your headaches. but remember, your landlord most likely is retaining a security deposit. go in guns blazing like a first year law student, and you can be sure every bit of damage and wear and tear will be scrutinized later.

    • Compassion on both sides is key. If the landlord is doing everything they can to resolve the issue in a timely manner then the tenant should recognize that shit happens and allow themselves to be mildly inconvenienced for a few days. And the landlord should make sure the tenants feel that their needs are being taken care of, whether that’s by checking in with them to make sure they’re ok, finding places for them to take showers, etc.

  • I have a small bathroom off the kitchen and in the back of my house. Because it extends over the entrance to my basement, it’s hard to insulate and is basically a cold outhouse. : ) Anyway, I left the water dripping in the sink when it got really cold, but only the cold water. I found that the hot water in both that bathroom and the kitchen froze, daggumit. Be sure to leave your faucet open so that when it thaws the water will have a place to move. Mine thawed late this morning because the sun is pretty intense and shines on that side of my house. Best of luck. The underground pipe theory sounds weird to me, but who knows. I only lost the pipes that go out to that part of the house.

    • Same setup here. (My bathroom wasn’t insulated at all by the shoddy DC flip-reno contractor who added it.) Toilet water and drain lines froze last night. I cleared the drain by running hot, and then pouring boiling, water down the sink drain. Got the water back by pointing a space heater at the point where the supply line enters the bathroom. The heat eventually conducts along the pipe and warms up the freeze. If the tank it empty, the water is eventually able to start running again.

  • Contact the dc tenant office at dcra and ask for an immediate home inspection. Dc law requires either running water or for the homeowner to provide enough bottled water to drink, cook, and wash with. The landlord cannot refuse to do anything and just wait it out. The inspection will result in either steep fines or an immediate fix it summons.
    If the landlord refuses to do either, get a record of that, and you are within your rights to use your rent money to get a hotel room until the problem is fixed, and deduct that cost from your rent. You can also get your own contractor to fix the problem and reduce that amount from your rent or ask for reimbursement.
    Saying you have to just find another place to stay is illegal, you have rights.

    • Accountering

      I’m inviting this guy to my next party…
      So essentially, the LL is required to provide bottled water. Wouldn’t it just be easier to suggest “call the LL, explain that you would like a $100 rent credit to pay for bottled water and the extra heat to boil it as necessary for showers”
      As opposed to the nonsense that you suggested?

    • this strikes me as pretty bad advice. maintaining a good relationship with your landlord is worth more than the money for bottled water, and calling DCRA is a nuclear option (and unclear if it would even work given their track record). just talk to the landlord and see what they can do for you – even if you won the right to bottled water or a rent credit, there are many legal ways your landlord can inconvenience you for the rest of your lease term

      • Accountering

        I agree. I do think it would be reasonable to ask the LL to cover bottled water. Again, a simple e-mail or phone conversation. Holding him over the gun with the threat of steep fines (the fact that DC T L actually thinks DCRA would show up immediately for a home inspection, and then FINE the owner for frozen pipes is so beyond the realm of fathomable it barely even bears mentioning)

        • And +1 to “the fact that DC T L actually thinks DCRA would show up immediately for a home inspection, and then FINE the owner for frozen pipes is so beyond the realm of fathomable it barely even bears mentioning.”

          • Actually yes, they have home inspectors that respond very quickly, like within 24 hours. DC takes Tenant law very seriously, plus they know they can hit the LL with huge fines and penalties for illegally rented housing.

            If you haven’t actually had experience with Office of the Tenant Advocate, you should probably not chime in here.

          • In regular weather, a 24-hour response time sounds entirely plausible. However, I believe the federal and D.C. governments were both closed on Tues. 2/17, the day this thread was posted.

    • So what happens when there is a water main break and it’s the city who shut off the water? I try my best to avoid People like you!

      • Fixing public property, like a water main, is the responsibility of the city.

        Fixing private property, like the pipes in a rental unit, is the responsibility of the property owner.

        Seems like a pretty obvious distinction to me.

        • That wasn’t my point. I think I understand that clearly. I’m asking if the tenant lost water due to a city failure, would the landlord still be held accountable to provide alternate accommodations? What would be expected of the landlord? It also sucks that the city would be so strict against landlords, yet leave room for their own failures.

          • You’re still being ridiculous. We’re talking about two separate situations. If it’s the city’s fault, it’s the city’s fault….. Landlord can’t do anything about it, and responsibility falls with the city. This situation is regarding if it is the landlord’s fault, as a provider of a business service which they potentially did not prepare properly for selling. Not as the provider of a public utility to an entire block of the city.

          • HaileUnlikely

            This is a really interesting legal question. Forgetting for the moment about the tenant’s feelings about the circumstances under which the landlord vs. the city vs. Mother Nature is at fault, the lease is between the tenant and the landlord, not between the tenant and the city or between the tenant and Mother Nature . Thus, if the landlord is unable to provide water to the tenant because of a failure on the part of DC Water, this is a fundamentally different situation to the landlord compared with if something on the landlord’s property is broken, but from the perspective of the tenant, the situation is the same (i.e., no water). Could anybody here share any insight regarding relevant law on this?

    • Getting your own contractor to fix it without the landlord’s knowledge or approval sounds like an awful idea as well. What if your contractor screws it up? Or charges ten times what they should? The kind of tenant who would do this probably doesn’t care about the landlord or their house enough to find someone who’s reliable and affordable.

      • Spot on. Bringing in your own contractor, and expecting that your landlord will pay their costs without a legal battle is outside the realm of reality.

  • ” Do we have to pay a full months rent even though the house has no running water?”

    No. Every lease in the District of Columbia includes a Warranty of Habitability, which requires that all dwelling units have hot water that is at least 120 degrees F.

    Tenants can withhold rent for as long as the rental unit is in violation because per DC law, a unit without hot water is not a habitable unit.

    In some jurisdictions, landlords are required to put tenants in hotels for the duration of repairs, but I’m not sure about the District.

    In any case, if your landlord does not offer to put you up in a hotel, your renters insurance may cover that expense.

    Talk to you landlord and let her know that lack of hot water is unacceptable.

  • Contact you friends and see if one of them will accommodate you for a day or so. You’re not going to get any assistance, from the LT court/laws, DCRA, etc. You just learned a lesson about freezing pipes, and hopefully what you can do in the future to prevent them from freezing again (putting vulnerable faucets and pipes on a steady drip). I learned that lesson the hard way myself many winters ago. It sucks, but this doesn’t sound like the fault of your LL. Good luck and stay warm!

  • northeazy

    Are you above utilizing the facilities at your landlords house/lawn until it is fixed at your place?

  • If you’re in the basement, prepare for burst pipes when everything thaws now by getting all your valuables and electrical items off the floor. You might also want to pack a “go” bag.

    Not saying it will happen, but even if the odds are just 25% you’ll be happy you were ready.

    • Is there anything to do to reduce the risk of pipes bursting when thawed? I don’t think there’s any water in the pipes inside the house. I feel as though all the water used before noticing there was an issue.

      • !! regardless if there’s a freeze inside the house, or outside of the service line – you should do 2 things: 1. shut your main valve off. 2. open the lowest faucet on the line (ie basement) to a warm position.

        once the line has thawed, you can test the line by slowly opening the main valve. SLOWLY. if your faucet doesn’t drip yet, you’re still frozen.

  • Pray tell, if the service line from the street is frozen, how exactly is someone supposed to “do something” to provide you water? And yes, I would imagine you would be surprised how many set ice lines in DC are not below the frost line. Something both me and my neighbor in Columbia Heights discovered during a brutal cold snap ~ 4 years ago.

    Secondly, renters are not completely responsibility free from cover the “acts of God” and other such issues. Just like a homeowner buys insurance to cover the “what ifs”, renters need to do the same. Considering it is so ridiculously cheap ($~ 150) per year, and specifically covers hotel expenses like this, and damage to goods and property, I just consider people who don’t the ultimate in lazy, especially if they are the the type to take to the blogosphere to complain about it.

  • This type of post drives me crazy. It is really cold, pipes freeze, these things happen. Yes, it is inconvenient, yes it sucks, but why must there always be someone at fault who should pay? Your landlord promptly got a contractor out to evaluate the situation and presumably fix it, if it were able to be fixed immediately. Unfortunately, it is an underground pipe, so you have to wait until the ground thaws some. She has taken reasonable steps by hiring a professional, whose professional opinion is that it cannot be fixed until the ground warms up some. Even if that contractor is wrong, do you really want the LL to have someone try to fix an underground pipe now? Even if it were possible to find someone who would do that work now, the practical implications of what you are asking for have to be considered. Do you really want someone coming in and jackhammering through the concrete slab underneath your floor, tracking snow and slush into your apartment and creating dust everywhere? And ditto on what some of the posters have said about the importance of a good LL/tenant relationship. If I were the LL and you wanted me to dig up a buried frozen pipe, I would make sure that the contractors started jackhammering in your space promptly at 7 am.

    • No one is saying that the landlord must make repairs tomorrow. It is however in the landlord’s best interest to make the repairs as soon as possible.

      No running water constitutes a constructive eviction and a breach of the warranty of habitability, and tenants may withhold rent until the repairs are made. An argument could certainly be made for withholding 100% of the rent, as an apartment with no water is arguably unlivable.

  • You need to find a plumber who has lived in a cold climate, there are ways of fixing this. First you need to establish that it’s actually frozen outside the house. If it’s frozen inside the house you can address it with heat from a space heater.

    Outside the house it’s most likely at the water meter. The slow method is to take the cap off of the water meter and insulate the space above it. It’s unlikely the ground is frozen at that depth, this will slow the escape of heat. Faster methods are introducing heat into the pipe there. You could wrap the pipe with heat tape before putting the insulation in. You could pour hot water down into the pit. Have a faucet open in the house so when it starts to give the water flows and that will do the rest.

    In cold places it’s very common to use an arc welder to thaw underground pipes. You have to know what you’re doing. Here’s a youtube video showing how:

  • We had the same problem and turned up the heat to 80 degrees for hours. It didn’t work, so we called the plumber. The plumber said they can’t do anything until the pipes burst, which you don’t want, and said we’d have to wait it out. So, after some thinking, we decided to try a few things. from the inside of our home, we took the cover off from the main water valve and took a blow dryer to it and after a few minutes, it thawed out! if you don’t know where that is, find the meter on the outside and from the inside, you should find some little door panel near it. Good luck!

  • I find many of these answers laughable! Being a landlord requires you to provide tenants the rift to habitable dwellings if a pipe freezes and there is no running water the issue should begin being repaired within 24! If a landlord is not doing everything possible to have services restored then they shouldn’t be a landlord! I’m a landlord and I require renters insurance but if I was not findings way to make things happen if pipes froze not allow bathroom or cooking uses etc I would not expect to be pain! The tenants are not the home owners they don’t take on home ownership so they are not responsible for the acts of God that occur and act of God is the first day without water and act of a bad landlord if not doing everything possible to fix the issue to preserve there investment and keep good tenants, ask the landlord to swap places or try to have kids not need to go to the potty especially little ones or how about how it’s flu an cold season that’s ok too because it’s “an act of god” maybe as a landlord you would pay to ensure the insulation and upkeep of all pipes and have good insurance. I am not very well off financially but I know most tenants are worse

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