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Legal Questions Answered By Griffin & Murphy, LLP

by Prince Of Petworth June 9, 2010 at 11:35 am 29 Comments

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.

Question:

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.

Answer:

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.

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