Broken Boiler, No Hot Water. What Can You Do as a Tenant?


Are you a tenant who relies on a boiler for heating or hot water? If you’re reading this article, it’s pretty likely. Waking up in the morning and discovering there’s nothing but icy cold water for your shower is not the best way to start your day. Isn’t life hard enough as it is?

Hot water is one of those things you don’t truly appreciate until it’s gone. So what can you do? You could either take a cold shower, start heating water on the stove for a sponge bath, or skip the shower altogether and go to work. It’s up to you.

The problem is that none of these strategies are particularly effective in the long run. Then the question is: what can you do as a tenant to remedy the situation?

Is the Landlord Responsible?

As you would expect, the landlord is responsible for fixing the boiler. Whether or not it’s mentioned in your rental agreement, your landlord has to provide you with a safe and healthy environment to live in, and hot water is considered a necessity. In legal terms, this is referred to as the implied warranty of habitability. Landlords have an obligation to give their tenants a habitable place to live in no matter how much rent they pay, and it doesn’t have to be specified in the contract or explicitly agreed upon.

The implied warranty of habitability is also not waivable, which means that landlords can’t make agreements to absolve themselves of this responsibility in exchange for a lower rent. These agreements will not be upheld in court.

The basic requirements that the implied warranty of habitability refers to include:

  • A roof that’s in good condition and can keep out rain or snow
  • Floors and walls that aren’t in danger of collapsing
  • No significant risk of being exposed to hazards like mold, asbestos, or lead
  • A reasonable level of protection against criminals breaking into the property
  • Reliable heating and sufficient hot water.

Losing access to hot water represents a breach of the implied warranty of habitability, so if your boiler breaks, your landlord has to remedy the situation right away. The problem is that even if they have the best of intentions, this is still a major repair.

Your landlord will need to have a technician inspect the boiler. If it’s still under warranty, it has to be a technician from the manufacturer. If the boiler is very old – more than 8 to 12 years – it may not make financial sense to repair it, and it will need to be replaced.

Boilers are quite expensive, especially the ones designed for multi-family housing units, and there’s also the cost of installation. Boiler rentals are always a good option, but it will still take a few days until you get hot water again.

What Happens Next?

If you don’t have hot water and think it might be the boiler, do not try to repair it yourself. First of all, it can be dangerous, but you can also invalidate the warranty. Call your landlord and let them know what’s going on. You should take note of when you made the call. You don’t have to call for a technician yourself. It’s up to the landlord to arrange this.

Before you make the call, you should check if there’s electricity or gas. The boiler may have stopped working because of a gas leak, in which case you should open the windows and leave the property. If you suspect there’s a gas leak, do not use the stove or oven and don’t light matches or lighters since it can cause an explosion. You’ll also want to check the thermostat and pilot light.

If several apartments are connected to the same boiler, your landlord will want to check if your neighbors are also not getting hot water because if yours is the only apartment affected, there might be an issue with the pipes, so they will send a plumber. Checking this by yourself can speed up the process because you can tell them over the phone. Either way, you’ll want to send them a written complaint after you’ve informed them verbally.

What if My Landlord Doesn’t Fix the Problem?

As we’ve mentioned before, having sufficient hot water is part of the implied warranty of habitability, so problems with your boiler have to be remedied urgently. If your landlord fails to fulfill their obligations, you have several options.

One would be to pay for the repairs yourself, keep the invoice and have the landlord reimburse you. Another option is to withhold rent until they fix the boiler. The third option would be to break the lease and move out of the apartment.

However, as with most legal issues, it is neither simple nor straightforward. Regulations and procedures vary from state to state, and even city to city, so make sure you know which ones apply to you.

For example, if you lived in New York City, the procedure would be to file a complaint with 311. An HPD (Housing Preservation and Development) inspector would come to your house to determine whether or not you are really without hot water. If yes, they would issue a violation to your landlord. If your landlord still refuses to make the necessary repairs, you could pressure them through housing court, or the Department of Housing Preservation and Development could make the repairs and recover the cost from your landlord.

The option of withholding rent is also not as simple as it sounds. You can’t just stop paying rent because you risk getting evicted. You first have to check if it’s legal in your state to withhold rent, and then you’d need the help of an attorney or tenant support agency to set up an escrow account where you deposit the rent until your landlord remedies the problem.

If you pay for the repairs or new boiler installation yourself and the landlord refuses to pay you back, you’ll also have to sue your landlord for damages so you can recover your money.

Before taking any legal action, we recommend that you first review the regulations and procedures in your area. Ideally, you should also consult an attorney or a tenant support agency to get legal advice specific to your situation.