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The landlord-tenant relationship can sometimes be contentious. Once the lease has been signed and the tenant has moved into the rental unit, the landlord may not feel they have a continuing duty to maintain the rental unit in good condition. The scenario in which the tenant must continually call the landlord or property manager to fix an appliance, a broken door, or even the heat system in the middle of winter is familiar. Keep reading this article to find out how landlord-tenant law in Iowa protects tenant’s rights in this situation.  

What is Habitability?

One of the most basic responsibilities of the landlord is to keep the premises in “fit” condition. This is a basic requirement that the landlord cannot avoid; even if the lease does not state this, the landlord has a basic duty to repair. While the landlord’s duty to maintain the rental in “fit” or “habitable” living conditions is a matter of common sense, it is also required by the law. After all, any rental unit needs to be safe and livable; otherwise, the landlord would expose the tenant to unnecessary risk.    

The conditions surrounding any rental unit, whether it is an apartment, residential house, or rental room, must be at least consistent with building and municipal housing rental codes. This means that if an apartment does not have a working heating system or water system, it is deemed “inhabitable.” Habitable means that a rental is safe, secure, and can function as “fit” housing or allows the tenant the quiet right to enjoy the premises without being disturbed by problems with the property. If the property is in some way unsafe because of a deficiency or fault in the property, such as the front outside door cannot be locked, a hole in the roof exposes the tenant to outside weather, or there is no hot water or lack of essential services, the rental is not compliant with the Iowa Code.   If you would like to know more regarding the Iowa landlord tenant laws read our article, Iowa Landlord Tenant Law Changes 2022.  

What are Examples of Habitability?

The law states that there are certain basic conditions that a rental property must have in order to be habitable. Water, heat, hot water, and other essential services (waste disposal, etc.) must be present in any rental unit. The conditions of habitability include all the basic things a rental unit needs to be occupied by a tenant in accordance with modern housing standards.    

But a condition that makes a rental uninhabitable can be highly fact-specific or vary according to each situation. In one case, the landlord failed to secure the guard railing on the balcony window of an apartment. When the railing gave way and caused the tenant to fall, the landlord was found liable for breach of contract based upon the implied warranty of habitability of the apartment.    

In another case, the basement heater in the furnace had a gas leak which caused the tenant headaches: this type of condition is a breach of the rental contract and the local housing code. The condition of uninhabitability can also be varied and factually specific. What if a mouse is present in the house or there are bed bugs? Probably not, although the landlord has a duty to make efforts to have this corrected. Does the ongoing presence of a mouse colony or maze of rats make a rental uninhabitable? Probably yes, because this type of infestation carries with it a health hazard.    

landlord handing over keys

One other point: if there is an unsafe or inhabitable condition in the rental, the landlord cannot ask the tenant to ignore it or give up their right to have it fixed, even if the tenant and landlord agree to this in writing. Why? Because Iowa law, like other states, states that a rental unit must be up to code and fit to live in even if the two parties agree to the contrary. Therefore, a landlord cannot ask or require a tenant to agree to accept a condition in the rental unit that would be inhabitable.  

What are Ways of Fixing the Problem?

There are different ways in which the tenant can respond to “remedy” this situation. First, the tenant should provide written notice to the landlord detailing the acts or problems affecting the health and safety of the tenant. If the landlord fails to fix or address the problem within seven days, the tenant may, at their option, terminate the lease and abandon the premises.    

Second, the tenant can recover damages and obtain a court order requiring the landlord to fix the problem. If the landlord failed not only to fix the problem within seven days and also failed to exercise due diligence in making efforts to address the problem to the extent it is within his control and their intent was willful, the tenant can also ask the court for attorney fees to be paid by the landlord.    

The third option the tenant has if the landlord fails to supply heat, water, hot water, or essential services is after the tenant provides written notice of this problem, which might be called self-help. On their own initiative, the tenant can procure these essentials and deduct any costs from the rent paid. In addition, the tenant is to recover damages for the reduced value of the rental property, which occurred through the failure of essential services.  

Tenants, however, also need to be careful. The tenant has no right to withhold rent when ordinary repairs are needed: (i.e., a crack in the window or a hole in the carpet. These repair issues are not a lawful reason to withhold rent. Also, as a best practice, it is always best to document any repair issues with a rental with photos, emails, text messages, and, when necessary, service of process. Landlord and tenant disputes in court are filled with “he said,” versus “she said,” stories. Courts, however, generally prefer solid, documented evidence when deciding, particularly when it is being asked to award damages.  

If you are a landlord or a tenant in Iowa and want to make sure that your rights are established and protected, you should consult with an experienced Iowa Landlord tenant attorney. An experienced attorney can help explain how your particular situation will be affected by the relevant law. Feel free to give O'Flaherty Law a call. We have experienced Iowa Landlord Tenant law attorneys who would be happy to help you.  

November 23, 2022
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