NYC Real Estate Survival: 6 Ways to Get Your Landlord to Fix Stuff

Compared to owning a place, renting is supposed to be a pretty hassle-free existence. If your dishwasher leaks or the window won't open or the radiator starts screaming, you tell your landlord (or the super, or the doorman) and someone comes to fix it.

That's the theory.

In reality, getting repairs done in a timely manner -- or any manner at all -- can be somewhat more challenging.

Variables include how tight a ship your super or management company runs, where your landlord falls in the slumlord-to-class-act continuum, the pay-to-play expectations of the staff, and your own reservoir of charm and persuasion.

Here are six ways to push the right buttons:

1. Put it in writing

Complaints in writing tend to get more attention than just calling or telling the super what you need.

"If there is a complaint book in the building, that's a good start, but writing a letter to the super or to the managing agent and copying the other makes it official and will get a better response," says Manhattan real estate lawyer Steven Wagner of Wagner Davis.

2. Tip the super

Though it may seem unjust to have to tip someone to do what they are already paid to do, this is a time-honored and fairly successful way to get attention in NYC, even if it's just getting moved to the head of the line above the 20 other tenants clamoring for help.

A tip may also get your repair done better--inducing your super, for example, to replace your broken fridge with a new one instead of the cast-off in the basement.

3. Call 311

If you have exhausted your options and are dealing with something arguably dangerous to health, life and safety (e.g. vermin, dangerous electrical wires, unreasonable noise, mold etc), call 311.

The city will send out an inspector. If a violation is issued, your landlord will be required to pay a fine or to show up in court to contest the violation. In either case, your landlord will have to certify that the violation has been corrected.

Downside: Your repair may be taken care of, but this will not endear you to your landlord when it's time to renegotiate that lease. Of course, maybe you don't want to live there anymore anyway.

4. Withhold rent

Depending on the severity of your problem, it might make sense to withhold rent. First, you need to understand what will get you laughed out of landlord-tenant court and what won't.

The city sorts violations into three categories: Class A, Class B, or Class C. If the city has already issued a violation, you can look up its classification on the relevant agency's website. If not, peruse the Housing Maintenance Code to see how your problem will likely be classified.

Generally speaking, Class A is a non-hazardous condition, such as a minor leak or a small area of peeling paint when there are no children under the age of six, Class B is a hazardous violation such as the absence of a self-closing door to the building (for security) or presence of vermin (i.e., roaches, bed bugs); and Class C is an immediately hazardous condition such as lack of heat, hot water, electricity or rodents. Class C violations stand the best chance of convincing a court that you're entitled to a significant rent abatement.

If you sent the landlord a letter asking for the repair, the city has issued the landlord a violation, and you withhold rent, "you should be in pretty good shape to succeed on a Warranty of Habitability claim, which is a defense to non-payment of rent where conditions are dangerous to life, health or safety," says Wagner. "Some nice clear photos of the conditions are always a good idea in court too."

You don't need a lawyer, but you do need proof such as photographs, a calendar on which you tracked the conditions on a daily basis, and evidence of your communications or efforts to communicate with the landlord.

Even with a Class C violation, your case is not a slam dunk if the landlord can show you created the condition or claims you didn't provide the access needed to fix it.

Keep in mind that your lease probably has a 'legal fees' clause that will allow the landlord to recover his expenses if he wins. Although if you win, you get to recover your legal fees.

"You need to be sure that you will win on the Warranty of Habitability claim or you may be sorry you ever took this route," says Wagner.

You may also be sorry when you go rent another apartment, as many if not most NYC landlords refuse to rent to someone who has previously been involved in litigation with a landlord.

5. Take your landlord AND the city to court

Another option for renters dealing Class A, B or C violations is the HP Proceeding, which Wagner likes to refer to as the Nuclear Bomb. ("HP" stands for "Housing Part" a.k.a. Housing Court.)

The HP Proceeding is a lawsuit that you bring in housing court against your landlord for failing to comply with the law and against the City of New York because it has failed to enforce the law. You don't need a lawyer, so it costs you practically nothing; housing court clerks help prepare the necessary papers to start the HP proceeding.

Be sure to make a complete list of everything wrong so that when the court sends out an inspector, they will know all of the complaints. The inspectors will only check those items that are listed, so don't be shy.

When the case appears on the court calendar, the attorneys for the city will prosecute the case for you and force the landlord to make the repairs that the inspector confirms are violations.

"These cases usually get resolved with the landlord either adjourning the case to get more time to make repairs before the judge hears the case," says Wagner, "or by the parties signing a stipulation of settlement that requires the landlord to make the repairs either immediately for class C violations, within 30 days for class B violations or within 90 days for class A violations."

Fines can be significant if the landlord does not make the necessary repairs. They typically range from $50 per day after 90 days for class A violations to $250 per day imposed immediately for C violations says Wagner.

"The court will enforce fines not only with a money judgment against the landlord, but if the landlord persistently fails to make the repairs, the court may punish the landlord for contempt," says Wagner.

The downside here is the same as with withholding rent: If your next landlord finds out, they will probably refuse to rent to you.

6. Do it yourself

This is a somewhat less aggressive option that falls between withholding rent and heading straight to court in an HP proceeding: Get an estimate for repairing the problem, send it to your landlord and request the repair in writing.

If your request is ignored, pay for the repair yourself, and deduct it from your next rent check. There's a decent chance this approach will succeed. However, if your landlord balks, you might wind up in housing court.

Now it's up to you whether you want to eat the cost of the repair or risk being blackballed by future landlords.

If you decide to stand your ground, your landlord will try to collect. Your defense is that your landlord violated the Warranty of Habitability and that you spent money to fix things.

Copies of the bills and proof of payment are critical to your defense, along with documentation of the condition, notice to the landlord that the condition existed (make copies of any letters and send them certified mail, saving proof of mailing) -- and that the landlord failed or refused to correct the condition.