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Dear PoP – Tenant heating question

by Prince Of Petworth February 17, 2010 at 2:30 pm 22 Comments

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?

  • aaron-anonymous

    Have you reported the problem to DC Code enforcement? I know in Takoma Park that is the first thing the Landlord and Tenant Affairs folks wanted to know. They won’t take your word for it later on so you have to have it documented with the city. When my heat went out during the January cold snap for 5 days my place was at 45 degrees and the city Takoma Park told me that wasn’t a safety issue and that I should have called code enforcement before calling the landlord.

    • Anonymous

      I don’t get it. Are you saying you shouldn’t call the landloard first?

  • Katie

    Call 311 and get an inspector out there. Your landlord can be fined if proven to not be providing at least 60 degrees. My friends recently went through a similar experience and landlord moved a lot faster with the warning from the inspector.

  • Mony

    Well definitely call DCRA to get an inspection done. They have power to issue violations and fines.

    You can also withhold rent, and it could be a pain but you can’t get evicted as long as you pay the money (the landlord will probably request that you to pay money into the court). Landlord might not be happy though with you.

  • Anonymous

    Get an inspection done. And, put the landlord on notice (in writing) that you will be withholding rent until the heat is fixed.

    As to the idiot repair service, it sounds like your landlord has some kind of extended warranty on the heater. The techs are just trying their best to ensure that their company does not need to replace the heater with a new one. You need to find out from the land lord who holds the service contract — if it is General Electric call and demand of everyone that you speak to that you want to be sent to the “escalation voicemail” or “escalation supervisor” (everyone you talk to will claim to be a supervisor, so you need the “escalation supervisor”). The tell them they have already tried 18 times (or whatever) to fix the thing and obviously it is not reparable. So, now they need to make good on the “lemon clause” of the contract and just replace it.

    Your landlord should really do this, but obviously she is not inconvenienced by the failure to fix it or by their repeated attempts. Maybe if you threaten not to pay the rent she’ll become more interested in getting the thing fixed.

    Calling DCRA could be an even bigger threat than not paying the rent.

  • Anonymous

    Yeah, it sucks that you have to do your landlord’s job for her (meeting the technicians every time, etc.) — that’s what you’re paying her for. Maybe if you stop paying her (put rent into an escrow account) or call DCRA she’ll become more motivated.

  • Joe

    Two words: escrow account. Trust me, if you want to withhold rent, pay it into an escrow account so the landlord knows you are not bums.

  • Anonymous

    This sort of seems like the nuclear option, given that the landlord isn’t ignoring the problem and keeps paying for technicians to come out. My understanding is that withholding rent usually involves paying it into the court, and even if it doesn’t, is usually a bureaucratic hassle that you may not want to bring on yourselves. The letter isn’t real clear about the state of relations with the landlord, but if it’s at all a relationship that works, I’d make perfectly clear to her that she has the obligation to get it fixed and nowhere in your lease does it require any of you to take leave time to make sure she’s providing you a livable property with working heat. Lack of heat almost certainly is a material breach of the lease by her, so you have a lot of leverage. I’d just be real clear that you expect it fixed by week’s end, and none of you will be tending the property during your workdays to make that happen. And if that doesn’t work, then terminate the lease or withhold rent.

  • Cobble

    I’d tell her, “I’m going to call the DCRA and get an inspection if it’s not fixed by ___.” Turning your landlord into the city is not going to help you in the long run. I know POP readers love to hate landlords but really, if you get the problem resolved without turning someone into the authorities, you’re probably better off. Especially when you’re forced to deal with that person. Use the threat as leverage and then you know you’ve done what you can. It’s not like she’s ignoring you. (Also, some leases put the responsibility of meeting repairmen on the tenant, but that’s not really relevant under this advice). Good luck.

    • Anonymous

      That said, perhaps read your lease again, just to make sure that you are/are not responsible to wait for service person.

  • Anon 2:53

    Also, if the utilities are normally included in your rent, you should definitely receive a few hundred or whatever it would have been reduction for the month, even after the problem is fixed. If you pay the utilities yourselves, well then at least your heating bills will be lower this month.

  • PetworthRes

    Just a potential point of view from the landlord (as I am one myself): it can be very hard to get people to come out on an emergency basis to do repairs, especially if the roads are bad and it’s hard to get around. Also, if the repair people are telling her it can be fixed, of course she will try to fix it rather than replace it. It could cost $3,000-8,000 for a new furnace — you definitely wouldn’t go out and spend that kind of money unless it’s absolutely necessary. Also, if she did decide to replace the furnace it could take 2 weeks or more to order the replacement and install it. This type of work is all custom and doesn’t happen very fast. My friends who own houses and had to replace their furnaces during winter both had to endure at least a week with no heat at all. It’s a bad situation even when it’s your own home you are trying to heat and you are trying your best to make it happen immediately.

    However, you are correct that your home needs to be maintained at a minimum temperature or it’s a code violation. She can freeze her own a$$ off, but as a landlord has a responsibility to make sure conditions in the house are reasonable. She should provide you with space heaters – you can get decent space heaters for under $50. She should have already done this – definitely ask her to do this!

    • Anonymous

      As a fellow landlord, I agree wholeheartedly with this, and agree that it sounds like the landlord is acting reasonably in this case. That said, what I take issue with here is the expectation that the tenants will have to be there to meet the technicians. When my tenants have maintenance needs, I routinely ask them if they’re able to be home to meet the techs, but if they tell me no, I make the time to be there to meet them myself. It’s not the tenants’ responsibility to do that, at least under my lease terms. If I can cash the checks, I can take the time.

  • Would the landlord be able to keep their deposit to compensate for withheld rent? I’d watch out for that…

  • Andy (2)

    She is making an effort to get it fixed so you should make the effort to communicate fully with her.
    Explain that being cold is an inconvinience, that using space heaters is more expensive and that leaving your jobs multiple times is becoming burdensome. If she is not being fair and not willing to meet the repairmen herself then ask for a discount of $100/month to cover the increased cost for using space heaters.
    Now if you are paying for utilities in your rent then you need to be compensated for not having heat $200/month – but then again you can just run the space heaters and after a $$$$ increase in the Pepco bill she’ll want the heat pump fixed stat!

  • JustJ

    Legally, a rental has to be kept at 68 degrees during the day and 65 at night. Anything less is a code violation. I’d suggest a friendly letter explaining that it’s been difficult to live without heat, and you know it’s been difficult for her as well, but it is a code violation, and if it isn’t fixed in X time, you think a rent reduction is appropriate…as you’d rather not get the city involved. That might light a fire under her ass (it didn’t in my case, but worth a shot).

  • Anonymous

    It also depends how long you want to stay in the place. Are you paying market rent? Do you want to renew your lease? If so, I’d be hesitant to withhold rent or call in the city. It sounds like the landlord is making an effort to get this done by calling in contractors. Let’s not forget all the snow we’ve been having, which has made neighborhoods inaccessible and placed huge demands on contractors.

    What I’d do is call her and ask that she reimburse you to buy a couple of oil filled electric radiators. Not those crappy wire coiled radiators that are fire hazards. DeLonghi makes an excellent one which I use in my bedroom. You can get them at target or online at amazon: http://www.target.com/gp/detail.html/188-9732925-8201545?asin=B001FB5XGO&ci_src=15781033&ci_sku=B001FB5XGO&AFID=Performics_Google%20Product%20Listing%20Ads&LNM=Primary&ref=tgt_adv_XASD0001.
    At night we shut off our central heat and plug in the radiator in the bedroom. It provides more than enough heat to keep our room toasty at night. That should hold you over until your central heat is repaired.

  • WARD4NDC

    Email [email protected] and [email protected] and copy [email protected] and [email protected] with your problem.

    Ward 4 Councilmember Muriel Bowser Chair the Committee that oversee DCRA

    • Anonymous

      Seriously??? Our city councilmembers have nothing better to do than have minor landlord-tenant issues escalated to their inboxes? I would prefer they not even waste the 10 seconds it would take to recognize this is something that shouldn’t be in their silo.

      • ah

        The sad fact of it with DCRA is that quite often until you get a council member involved they sit on their hands. It’s terrible, but that’s the way it is. DCRA has some serious problems.

  • We are a Heating and Cooling Contractor that does a good amount of work in NW as well as The Hill (Were not all bad). It sounds like the electric heat (the resistance heat bank) in the indoor unit is not coming on. Landlords seem to want to go the cheapest route for contractors and repairs. However sometimes you fix one thing just to find out there are more problems. The good news is that you have 2 systems. At least the one seems to be working the way it should. If you keep the snow away from the Heat Pump and change the filters regularly it should work fine.
    If the Back Up heat is working the way it should, you should not need space heaters. I hope this helps, Good luck with the landlord.

  • Ah,
    We have handled hundreds of no heat calls this winter and we have had great success. You call 202-442-9557 or email [email protected] and we get inspectors out ASAP. I’d be happy to send tweets and emails of appreciation we’ve received. We’ve gone block-by-block and handed out about 10,000 fliers to tenants about heat regulations. Don’t get a response? email me at [email protected] or call me 202-442-4513.

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