Most states have some version of “repair and deduct,” a process that tenants can use to deal with a landlord who won’t fix major problems with their rental unit. As the name suggests, tenants are allowed by law to make repairs on their own and then deduct the cost from their next rent payment.
Massachusetts law specifically allows tenants to repair and deduct, as long as the problem with the rental unit is serious.1 State law also requires tenants to follow a strict timeline and limits how much money they can spend on repairs.
Minor code violations don’t qualify for repair and deduct
Massachusetts law specifically allows tenants to repair and deduct, as long as the problem with the rental unit violates state sanitary codes or other state or local laws and endangers the health, safety, or well-being of the tenant. According to the courts, “minor” code violations don’t warrant repair and deduct, but “major” violations do.2 So how is a tenant to determine whether their condition is a “major” or “minor” one?
A breach of the implied warranty of habitability—a legal guarantee that a landlord will keep their rental units in livable condition—is always considered major.3 Although there’s no exact list of what’s considered a breach in Massachusetts, it’s safe to assume that lack of heat or electricity, plumbing problems, trash disposal issues, broken windows, and broken doors or locks all count. The consistent presence of mold is a breach, but a leaky air conditioning that could eventually cause mold is not.4
That said, if the tenant themselves—or one of their guests or pets—actually caused the problem, the landlord is not on the hook to repair it. A tenant cannot take a sledgehammer to their toilet, demand a repair, and then repair it themselves and deduct the cost.
Tenants should collect evidence of the problem before making a repair
Although there are some general guidelines (as mentioned above), whether or not a specific problem qualifies for repair and deduct always depends on the facts of the case. Courts in Massachusetts consider several factors to decide whether a tenant was entitled to deduct from their rent, including:5
- The severity of any housing code violations
- Whether the landlord had notice of the condition
- Whether the tenant caused the condition in question
Whether evidence exists showing the condition complained of by the tenant
So, before a tenant makes a repair, they should take photos of the apartment’s original condition. If their landlord sues them for not paying rent, this evidence will be important to prove that they were justified in using repair and deduct.
Landlords have five days to start making repairs—and 14 to finish them
Before a tenant makes any repairs themselves, they are required to inform their landlord of the problem in writing.1 At that point, the landlord has five days to begin fixing the issue—and 14 days in total to complete the repairs. So, if a tenant gives notice on the first of the month, the landlord must start the repairs by the sixth, and must finish the repairs by the 15th. If the landlord fails to do this, the tenant can repair and deduct.
The amount deducted can’t be more than four months’ rent
In Massachusetts, a tenant isn’t allowed to deduct more than four months’ rent over any 12-month rental period.1 So if a tenant pays $1,000 per month in rent, it’s illegal for them to deduct more than $4,000 for the cost of repairs over the course of a year-long lease.
Although it’s not a legal requirement, it’s also a good idea for the tenant to save the receipts for any repair work performed and send them to the landlord along with the reduced rent payment.
A tenant can show repair costs as a defense against eviction
There’s a chance a landlord may try to evict a tenant for nonpayment of rent if they use repair and deduct. However, a tenant is specifically allowed to defend themselves in court by citing repair costs (another good reason for a tenant to save their receipts).6 In other words, if a landlord tries to evict the tenant for not paying full October rent, if the tenant can prove they deducted a repair cost from October rent, they cannot be evicted.
If the necessary repair is prohibitively expensive, there's another tactic tenants can use: withholding rent until the landlord finally makes repairs. Learn more about the options available to tenants in Massachusetts.
The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice.
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