Some form of heat is necessary to maintain basic health and well-being in a home, and every landlord is required to maintain heat. You may be able to deduct some money from rent if your heating system is broken and your landlord has refused to make repairs, but state laws regarding how much you can deduct and how long you must wait for repairs differ. Be sure to check local laws before you withhold rent and check with a lawyer if you have any questions.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
Only after you've contacted your landlord and given them an adequate amount of time to fix the problem can you consider prorating rent, but even then you'll have to check local laws and notify your landlord if you decide to withhold rent.
Landlords and Repairs
Your landlord has two basic obligations regarding your heat. First, your landlord must keep the property safe and habitable, which means providing heat during the winter months. Second, your landlord has to keep the property in the condition it was in when you signed the lease. For example, if you were promised a home with central heat and air, the landlord can't replace that system with space heaters.
Reasonable Time Period
You can't withhold rent simply because the heat is broken. Instead, you have to give your landlord "reasonable time" to fix the problem. Every state and municipality has a different rubric for establishing reasonable time. In California, for example, landlords have 30 days unless the repair is urgent. Broken heat in the middle of a snowstorm is urgent, but broken heat in the middle of the summer is not. Some cities and states require a certain temperate of heat during certain seasons.
Notifying Your Landlord
If you think you may need to withhold rent, it may be time to stop chatting informally with your landlord and start documenting your conversations. In that case, all of your communications with your landlord should be in writing and sent via certified mail, return receipt requested.
If your landlord tries to evict you for nonpayment of rent, you can use these documents as evidence that you notified your landlord of the need for repairs. Before you deduct money from your rent, give your landlord one final notice indicating you plan to take money out of your rent check until the problem is solved.
Talking to the Authorities
In some jurisdictions, such as New York City, you may be able to complain to a local or state government agency if there's a problem with your heat and your landlord doesn't address it. This varies from place to place, so check what your local laws say.
Repair and Deduct Option
In many states, you can deduct repair costs, but only the actual costs of repairs. If the costs are more than a month's rent, you can prorate them over several months. You can't, however, stop paying rent altogether unless the home is uninhabitable. If the home is uninhabitable, provide your landlord with notice of the house's condition and then move out.
Van Thompson is an attorney and writer. A former martial arts instructor, he holds bachelor's degrees in music and computer science from Westchester University, and a juris doctor from Georgia State University. He is the recipient of numerous writing awards, including a 2009 CALI Legal Writing Award.