Rights of Tenants: Unsafe or Unfit Housing
Does my landlord have to keep my home safe and in decent condition?
Yes. Maine law gives tenants an "implied warranty of habitability." This means that your landlord must promise that your home is safe and fit to live in.
Examples of landlord violations:
- undrinkable water
- no heat or too little heat in the winter
- a combination of problems, such as leaking ceilings, unsafe heating system, broken windows, and roaches
The heating system should be able to heat your living space to at least 68°.
What can I do if my home is not safe?
- Step One
Ask your landlord to fix the problem. If he does nothing, you may want to follow up with a written demand. Keep a copy of your letter.
- Step Two
Call your city hall or town office and ask about any housing codes that may apply to your building. If your town has a building code enforcement officer, you can ask him to look at your home and send the landlord a letter demanding that he fix any code violations. State law also requires each town to have a health officer, who can inspect and order that unhealthy conditions be remedied (or that the building be vacated). Also, each town must have a local pumbing inspector to enforce state and local plumbing-related rules.
- Step Three
If you cannot get local help, you may be able to get some help, or other referrals, from these state agencies:
- Fire hazards:
State Fire Marshall's Office
626-3880 TTY: 287-3659
- Electrical wiring problems:
Senior Electrical Inspector
624-8519 (to leave a voicemail for inspector) or
624-8603 (general inquiries)
- Plumbing problems:
624-8639 TTY: 1-888-557-6690
- Wastewater, drinking water, and radon:
DHHS Division of Environmental Health
Office of Local Public Health
Health Inspection Program:
Wastewater program: 287-5689
Drinking water: 287-2070
Mold, Radon, indoor air quality: 287-5676
Also, the non-profit agency Maine Indoor Air Quality Council (626-8115) is a reliable resource and posts useful information.
What if I think there is lead paint in my apartment?
You can be tested or have your children tested for lead. Ask your family doctor or clinic about lead tests. If your child's test shows a very high level of lead, the lab will tell the Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program in Augusta (see below). They can inspect your home for free and order your landlord to remove the lead. This program gives other help and information, as well.
If you want to check the paint or water in your home for lead, ask your landlord for help or call one of these state agancies:
- The Health and Environmental Testing Laboratory at 287-2727 (Water testing)
- Maine State Housing Authority 1-800-452-4668 (Paint testing; they can also test for lead in soil where your child plays.)
Some Community Action Programs (CAPs) can also help you with dust testing.
For More Information Contact
- Childhood Lead Poisoning Prevention Program
- Lead Hazard Prevention Program, DEP: 1-800-452-1942
- Lead Hazard Control Program, MSHA: 1-800-452-4668
If you have a young child who has been harmed by a landlord's failure to tell you about known lead hazards, or failure to give you other required warnings, he may be fined or made to pay you damages.Get legal advice.
For all places built before 1978, a landlord must give you 30 days advance notice before doing any repairs or renovations that disturb lead-based paint. This notice includes postings on all exterior entry doors and a certified mail letter to all residential units in the building. Or the landlord can post the notices and get a signed written waiver from an adult in each unit. The waiver must contain specific warnings. Your landlord can be fined up to $500 for each violation of these notice rules. If you believe that you or your children have suffered harm because your landlord failed to notify you, you can report the violation to your local District Attorney or the Maine Attorney General's Consumer Protection Division.
The purpose of this law is to make sure that you have opportunity to protect yourself and your children from lead dust while the work is being done. Also, your landlord must use lead-safe practices so as to minimize the danger.
Bedbugs: What can I do to avoid them and get rid of them?
Bed bugs have become much more common in Maine. They are difficult to get rid of. As with other health and safety issues, the first step is to contact your landlord and ask him to have the building professionally treated. You and others in the building will also have to take steps to help combat the problem.
Before you rent:
It is illegal for a landlord to rent an apartment that he knows (or suspects) to have bedbugs. He must also tell you whether other nearby apartments in the building have bedbug problems.
Before you rent ask when the apartment and nearby units:
- were last inspected for bedbugs, and
- found to be free of bedbugs.
The landlord must give you an honest answer.
What happens if my apartment is infected with bedbugs after I move in?
First, you must tell your landlord right away. After that, both you and your landlord must make efforts to fix the problem. Here is how it works:
- After you notify your landlord, he must inspect your apartment within 5 days.
- Next, your landlord must contact a state certified pest control expert within 10 days of inspecting and finding bedbugs.
- Then your landlord must take all reasonable steps to treat the problem, based on the expert’s advice.
- Your landlord and the pest control expert will probably need access to your bed, furniture and other belongings. They must be respectful of your privacy but at the same time do whatever inspections are needed to take care of the problem. You need to cooperate to get rid of the bedbugs. Your landlord must tell you the costs of your participation in the process.
NOTE: Your landlord should always give you 24-hour advance notice before entering your apartment or sending pest control experts, unless it’s an emergency. See Landlord Entering Your Home.
What if I can’t afford to “cooperate?”
To help get rid of the bedbugs, you may be asked to move furniture, launder clothing, linens, or take other steps to assist in the process. If you cannot afford to do these things or are not able to do them, your landlord can go ahead with the necessary steps and charge you for any costs specific to you (such as moving your furniture or laundering your linens). If your landlord fronts these costs for you, after first telling you how much they will be, he can ask that you repay those costs over a 6-month period (or longer, by agreement).
What should I do if my landlord doesn’t do anything to get rid of the bedbugs?
You can take your landlord to court. You can get at least $250 or your “actual damages” (whatever you lost). You must show that:
- you did not cause the problem;
- you gave your landlord oral or written notice of the problem when you learned about it;
- the landlord didn’t take prompt steps to get rid of the bedbugs; and
- you did not owe the landlord any back rent when you gave the notice.
Note: If your landlord tries to evict you within six months of your complaint, the law may protect you. See Retaliation Defenses.
- Make sure you have correctly identified the bug. You can send samples to the University of Maine Cooperative Extension's Insect Lab.
- Avoid picking up beds, mattresses and other old furniture off the street or from the dump.
- When moving to a new place from one with bed bugs, make sure that you are not bringing the bugs, or their eggs, with you in your belongings. (See linked articles below.)
Here is a helpful resource on bed bugs, how to identity them, and how to get rid of them:
See also, July 29, 2010 Lewiston Sun Journal article about high-heat treatment as an effective remedy. (Landlords and homeowners should consult with a qualified, experienced expert.)
What can I do about mold?
If you think you have mold, ask your landlord to find and fix the water problem that is allowing mold to grow, then to fix any water damage. If this doesn't work, follow the above steps. Approach your landlord again with findings from your local health officer and your doctor, if you can get them.
The state's Health and Environmental Testing Laboratory is no longer doing mold testing. Some private labs will do testing, but it is expensive.
For more information contact:
- Office of Local Public Health 287-6227.
- The non-profit agency Maine Indoor Air Quality Council (626-8115) is a reliable resource and posts useful information about indoor molds.
- The federal EPA posts: A Brief Guide to Mold, Moisture, and Your Home
Does my landlord have to provide smoke and carbon monoxide alarms?
Yes. All apartments must have working smoke and carbon monoxide alarms in or near bedrooms. Single-family homes built or renovated after 1981 must also have smoke alarms. Any renovation that adds a bedroom must include a carbon monoxide alarm. In apartment buildings with more than three stories, all hallways must have smoke alarms. All new alarms put in after October 2009 must plug into the wall and have a battery backup.
If you are deaf or hard-of-hearing, you may request a non-audible alarm. If your landlord refuses, you may put one in yourself and deduct the actual cost from your rent. (See below.)
Any smoke alarm located within 20 feet of the kitchen or a bathroom containing a tub or shower must be photoelectric-type smoke detector.
Landlords may be fined up to $500 for each violation of these rules.
- Test alarms periodically
- Make sure the batteries are working
- Not disable alarms, and
- Notify the landlord in writing when an alarm is not functioning properly.
How do I know if my building has dangerous radon levels?
Radon is a gas you can't see or smell that can be harmful to your health. According to Maine DHHS radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer. Beginning in 2012, your landlord must test for radon in your building. He must do this every 10 years. Whoever tests your building must be registered with the state's Division of Environmental Health at DHHS . Your landlord must notify you in writing about radon in your apartment. This notification must include the date of the most recent test, the radon level in your building, and the health risks of radon. If the test results show the radon levels in your apartment are dangerous, your landlord has six months to lower the radon levels to a safe amount. Your landlord must notify you again when radon levels are safe. For more information on radon, see DHHS 's Radon Homepage.
Can I fix the problem myself?
Sometimes if a repair is not too major, you can "repair and deduct." You can fix the problem and deduct the cost of the repair from your next month's rent. Here are the rules:
(1) Your problem must be one that makes your home unhealthy or unsafe. Examples:
- no heat or not enough heat in the winter (More about heating issues)
- unsafe drinking water
- falling ceiling
- unsafe wiring
(2) You must be able to fix the problem for less than $500 or half of your monthly rent, whichever is greater. For example:
- If your rent is $800 per month, you can spend up to $500 to do the repair.
- If your rent is $1,200, you can spend up to $600.
- This amount is increased to two times your monthly rent if your building is in foreclosure.
(3) You, your family, or your guests did not cause the problem.
(4) Before you fix the problem, you must write a letter to your landlord. Send the letter by certified mail, return receipt requested. In the letter, ask your landlord to fix the dangerous condition within 14 days, or sooner if it is an emergency. Tell him that if he does not do the repair, you will have it fixed and deduct the cost from your rent. (We have a form letter you can use. You will need Adobe Acrobat Reader to view it. Go here if you need help downloading this free software.) If your landlord offers to fix the problem, then you must let him into your home to do the repair. See Landlord Entering Your Home.
(5) If you have the work done, both the work and the materials must be of good quality. If your problem is with the heating, plumbing, or electricity, you must get a licensed worker to do the repairs.
(6) After the work is done, send the landlord a copy of the bill. Keep the original bill. Then you can deduct the cost from your rent payment.
Here are a few more "repair and deduct" limitations:
- You cannot use "repair and deduct" if your landlord lives in your building and there are fewer than 5 apartments.
- If you do the repairs yourself, you can deduct for parts and materials but not for your labor.
- Members of your immediate family cannot charge for labor either.
- You cannot hold your landlord responsible if anyone gets hurt doing the repairs.
What if the repairs cost more than $500.00 or half my monthly rent (or 2 x monthly rent if building is in foreclosure)?
You and your neighbors may be able to use "repair and deduct" together to fix a bigger problem. For example, your building might have a bad roof or furnace which costs a lot to fix. If you had 8 tenants who each pay $800 per month, you could pay for a repair costing as much as $4000 (8 x $500).
Caution: We do not know of anyone who has tried this before in Maine. If you want to try a group "repair and deduct," try to talk with a lawyer first.
My landlord just stopped paying his utility bills. What can I do?
Your agreement was that the landlord would pay for utilities – such as lights, electric heat, fuel or water. Then he stopped paying. You can legally put the account in your name, pay the bill, and then deduct the cost from your rent.
If this doesn’t work to make you even, you can sue your landlord for your “actual damages” (your losses). The court can also order the landlord to pay your court costs and lawyer’s fees.
Read more about how your town may be willing to help you with heat and utilities.
Can I just refuse to pay my rent if my landlord won't fix things?
No. You will risk eviction and can still be charged for the rent while you are living there. Talk to a lawyer before you decide to stop paying rent.
Exception to the rule: If your apartment burns down or is so damaged that you can no longer live there (and it's not your fault), you do not have to pay rent from the day you are forced out.
I have tried all of the things you have suggested but my home still is not safe. What about suing my landlord in court?
Warning your landlord of court action may be enough to get him to fix the problem. If not, you may either want to move or to sue.
To win a lawsuit, you must meet these tests:
- Your problem must be serious--something that makes your home unsafe or unhealthy.
- You, your family or guests did not cause the problem.
- You must tell your landlord about the problem in writing within a reasonable time, and give her a reasonable time to get it fixed. (Telling the building manager or someone else who collects rent for the landlord may be good enough. But the best way to prove that your landlord knew about the problem is by giving her written notice and keeping a copy.) Get sample form here.
- You should be fully up-to-date in your rent payments at the time you give the landlord written notice.
If your landlord does not fix the problem within a reasonable time after you give the written notice, talk to a lawyer about going to court or file a complaint in Small Claims Court yourself. (If you need quick action, going to Small Claims Court may take too long.)
At a court hearing the judge will decide whether your landlord has given you a safe and healthy place to live. The judge may order any of these remedies:
- that your landlord fix the apartment
- that your rent be less until the landlord does the repairs
- that your landlord pay you back some of the rent you have paid
Can my landlord make me agree to live in a home that is unsafe or unfit?
No. A landlord cannot force you to accept unsafe or unfit housing. You can agree voluntarily to live with certain unsafe or unfit conditions. The agreement does not stand unless:
- it is in writing
- it says exactly what unsafe conditions you have agreed to live with
- it says exactly how much the rent was lowered because of the unsafe conditions
Partially updated September 2011