THE FINE PRINT — Can I stop paying rent if I get in a dispute with my landlord?

February 28, 2014

By Jan Pierce

janpierceWhen you sign a lease with a landlord, you’re making an agreement. You give him or her money, and in exchange, you get a place to live. But it’s more than that. You expect to have a place that you can live in comfortably and safely.

The law sets certain basic requirements. You have the right to “quiet enjoyment” and “tenantability.” Generally speaking, these refer to the right to live in peace and quiet, without disturbance from others, in a place that is in good repair, and that has, at the very least, heat and water. Other less basic details, such as how much advance notice a landlord needs to give before entering your residence, who pays for certain repairs and utilities, or whether animals are allowed, are covered in the lease.

If you ever have any questions about who is responsible for what, you should look to your lease first. Then, when you’re armed with the facts, talk to your landlord. Prior preparation and good communication go a long way to solving many problems.

If your landlord refuses to take action for something he or she is responsible for, you should document the problem and your efforts to get it remedied. Too often, tenants rely only on the phone and fail to document their efforts to resolve their dispute. If the dispute ends up in court, which it easily can, you’ll need evidence to back up your side of the story. Even if you use the phone, follow up with an email to the landlord to document that discussion. You might even find that the landlord responds differently when you place your demand in writing.

If the problem relates to your health and welfare (e.g. no heat or water), then it is probably regulated by municipal ordinances. If, after making a reasonable effort to communicate the issue to your landlord, you still don’t get satisfaction, a call to Milwaukee’s Department of Neighborhood Services is probably in order. It should go without saying that a call to DNS will not endear you to your landlord, so it should be one of your last resorts.

If you get to the point where you are considering withholding rent, it should only be in conjunction with terminating your lease, which puts you at risk for being sued. There is a legal basis for terminating a lease, especially when it comes to issues of health and welfare, but such a basis must be well documented and meet the elements spelled out in the law. A mere accusation that a landlord has breached the terms of a lease, on its own, is not a basis to withhold rent. If you do so, you should expect to get evicted and sued for back-rent.

Jan Pierce, S.C. is a law firm In Milwaukee that was founded with the belief that people can make a positive difference in the world and make a profit. The firm’s emphasis is on assisting small businesses and social entrepreneurs in all aspects of launching and managing their ventures. Disclaimer: Advice in this column is general legal information and does not constitute, nor is it intended to be, legal advice. Send your question to To protect your privacy, your name will not be published.


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