After a brutally cold New Jersey winter full of snowstorms, many of us are probably grateful for the heat we had in our homes – that is, if it was working. Problems with heat or other utilities in a rental home or apartment in the past likely led you to contact your landlord. He or she probably didn’t wait too long to fix the problem, but if he did, you could have a claim against him.
In a recent Appeals Court case, Rosario v. Kim, a tenant’s heat and windows in the apartment he rented were faulty for over a year before the landlord rectified the situation, leading it to be “excessively cold” in the apartment for the entire length of that time. A judge awarded damages for the landlord’s breach of warranty of habitability.
In New Jersey and most states, a landlord renting property for residential use always either explicitly in a contract or implicitly provides a warranty of habitability. This generally means the landlord is promising that the property is livable, with livability or habitability determined by what a reasonable person would find. In this case, the court looked at what makes a premises uninhabitable when it comes to heating issues.
At minimum, habitability requires that “[a]t a minimum, the necessities of a habitable residence include sufficient heat and ventilation, adequate light, plumbing and sanitation and proper security and maintenance.” Here, the tenant notified the landlord that the apartment was excessively cold as early as October 2014, when faulty windows causing drafts and a broken heating unit made it impossible for the place to maintain a steady and stable temperature. The heating unit was eventually replaced in February 2016, over a year after tenant first gave notice to landlord. The apartment remained cold even after the addition of the new heating units, because of the drafty windows. The persistent cold temperature led the tenants to seek legal recourse for breach of the warranty of habitability.
While the trial court and appellate court both agreed that the tenant was entitled to damages for the breach in part because tenant provided the required notice to landlord of the defect, they disagreed about the amount. The remedies for a tenant to recover in such circumstances are usually rent abatement and a deduction from rent for any self-help repairs made by the tenant. The Appeals Court differed in its findings from the trial court in two ways:
Landlord must have reasonable time to make the necessary repairs, and the tenant is not entitled to damages as a result of this timeframe.
Tenant is not entitled to reimbursement of excess utility bills.
Situations where a tenant suspects a landlord is neglecting necessary aspects of a property can be common. The tenant here successfully recovered damages because he provided notice quickly to his landlord. And he kept a record of when the notice was given and the costs associated with the defect. That information can be critical.
Angela Yu is a New Jersey and New York attorney with a multifaceted practice area focusing in corporate, real estate and general contract law. She uses her interest in real life application of the law to author articles and other scholarship on a broad range of cutting-edge legal and business topics. Ms. Yu is a published legal author and holds a J.D. and M.B.A. from Rutgers School of Law and Rutgers Business School. Neither she nor Mike Farhi provides legal advice on this website. This blog post and any blog posts do not constitute legal advice.