Once in a while, you will have a rental maintenance issue that you cannot permanently solve right away. When an apartment has no heat that is certainly one of them. There are several other types of issues like this. You may have a drain clog that you do not have the equipment to do yourself, it may be a weather-related issue, or it may be that you are just waiting on someone to do the work, or parts.
Here is an issue I came across in one of my apartments and how I eventually resolved it.
The Set Up, All is Well
I had an apartment turnover. It was pretty straight forward. The previous tenants had been in the apartment for just a year. The existing tenants signed a lease for the first of November at a new place. The tenants were obligated to stay in my apartment until the end of November. I talked to them about the possibility of getting the apartment rented to new tenant at the middle of November, to help out their expenses, and it also give me more flexibility without increasing my vacancy expenses. New tenants generally like this setup too, as they can overlap their rental and take more time to move. They can rent a truck in the middle of the month, when it is less than half-price as at the end of the month.
It is generally a win-win-win situation, if it can work out.
Fixing Things BEFORE the New tenants
During my turnover, I noticed the the rental apartment has no heat. The pilot light igniter was sparking, but no gas would come out to light the pilot light module. I quickly ran home to my spare parts shelf, grabbed a pilot light igniter, and changed the part. I cleaned the burners since I had it apart. All seemed well, until I attempted to start the furnace. The furnace was dead.
I called my furnace guy, and they came out and looked at it. After ~30 minutes of trouble shooting, the guy asked me “do you have the gas turned on?” I never even thought of that possibility. I have a landlord cut-over setup on all my rentals. If the tenant moves out, the utilities go in my name until the next tenant calls and puts them in their name. Or if the tenant doesn’t pay their bill. It saves a lot of headaches, and expenses of “account activation” fees. When I start an apartment turnover, I have hot water and lights.
I looked at the gas meter. The meter was locked out. $165 later, the furnace guy left.
The Scramble Begins
I quickly called the energy company, and they came out right away. They made a mistake and shut the gas off between tenants. In my old days of renting to sub-par tenants, I would have checked the gas meter right away, but I have not had a significant issue for many years, so it was totally out of my current realm of possibilities I had in my head. (Landlord Tip: Check the most obvious things first…) After several emails and calls, the energy company agreed to reimburse me for the $165.
When the energy company guy came to turn the gas on, he went into the apartment to check for any gas leaks, and both the water heater and furnace started fine. The furnace fired up and all was well. Or so we thought…
The new tenant moved in. The tenants took a few days to move in, get settled, and start sleeping in their new home. They called me about the thermostat. It was not working. I was able to change the batteries in the thermostat, the furnace fired up, and all was well, or so I thought…
The Rental Apartment has no Heat
The furnace would run for ~5 minutes and then shut off. It was likely the main computer board, or the new pilot light igniter that was bad. The furnace was 30+ years old; I decided to replace it rather than fix it.
What can you do if your rental apartment has no heat? It was Minnesota in November, the tenants rental apartment has no heat. I need to get something done relatively fast. The outside temperatures were not too terribly cold, by Minnesota standards. The apartment has heated walls on most sides due to the neighboring units, but it was not quite warm enough. I gave the tenants an electric heater, and they had one of their own. I explained that they could also use the electric oven to get more heat. Or I could bring over more electric heaters. They said they were OK, and all would be fine.
I ordered a new furnace and waited on its arrival. Nine days later I installed it and all was well – or so I thought…
The Initial Shots are Fired
I received this email from the tenants.
“I’m writing on behalf of my roommates, S and R, and myself to express our concern about our non-working furnace. Although we have been understanding, we have been told by several people that it is unusual for it to take so long to get a new furnace during the cold season in Minnesota. We appreciate the space heaters, but they do not replace a working furnace and will increase our electricity bill. We also believe it’s appropriate to request a reduction in rent for the period of time we have lived in the townhouse without a working furnace. Please let us know what you think, and we can come up with a proposed calculation.
We all really like the townhouse and look forward to a good year ahead. Thank you.
I had already told one of the roommates to show me the electric bill when they received it. My initial thought was that I could pay the electric bill for them, as it would be ~$100. Speaking with several landlords about this same situation, when a rental apartment has no heat, none had ever given a rent concession for this type of thing.
Maintenance Items Are Not All Rosy
Maintenance things are inconvenient, I get that. It would be inconvenient in my own home, and that’s life. Stuff happens. I asked the tenant in person what she was thinking that would make it right. She said they were thinking a $400 credit, as I would not have been able to rent an apartment in the winter without heat. The tenant was partially correct, and I had electric heaters for a temporary solution. You cannot get a furnace changed the same day in Minnesota in November without paying a large premium. All furnace companies are busy, they have to schedule stuff too. I told her I was thinking more like $150, or $50 for each roommate.
The Return Fire
I told her I would respond to her email and outline my thoughts in more detail. Here was my response. Keep in mind, my usual furnace company would not have been any faster, especially over a holiday weekend. I talked to the tenants on most days to make sure they were doing well and there were no other issues. Since I had other maintenance to do in the building, I was around to see them in person on many of the days.
“I share your concerns. The furnace is now installed.
I believe I was notified that the furnace was not working on Sunday 11/20, and the furnace was installed on 11/29. A total of 9 days.
A furnace install taking over a week is not unusual. I have had several furnaces installed over the years, and most good furnace companies are booked at least a week out, often two weeks. Even in this case, CAir of Eagan, told me that it would be the middle of this week at the earliest to get a new furnace installed.
A furnace company needs to schedule a visit for an estimate and measurement, order the furnace, and then schedule the install. This all takes time to coordinate and schedule. In the meantime, space heaters are the work-around solution until the actual furnace gets installed. They are commonly used as a safe and effective as an alternate heating source.
I am willing to work with you on this. At $1,195 a month, you are paying ~$40 a day to live at the apartment. While the non-operating furnace was an inconvenience, you did have alternative heating, and it was still a habitable dwelling. You had use of the apartment, and the electric heaters should have kept the place warm.
Even if you count the entire 9 days as being without heat, I am willing to take 50% off or $20 off per day, for the entire 9 days. That would be $180. I can assure you, this is more than most landlords, or property management companies, would even consider. Most would not give anything back.
Hopefully this makes sense. Feel free to ask any additional questions.”
They quickly responded.
“Hi Eric, the amount you suggested off sounds ideal- $180. We deducted it from our rent for this month. Was that okay? Thank you.”
I did not have to give them any rebate at all. They had heat, and the apartment was habitable. But why make a situation adversarial in the first few weeks of being a renter. Paying the $180 or even the $400 may be better than a court action, even if you would win, you lose. Paying the $180 was fine with me. It was a bit higher than I wanted, but I was getting an additional $70 a month more than the previous tenants. I saved ~$1,200 by installing the furnace myself, the new furnace cost less than $500. They are rock solid tenants in terms of credit score and criminal record.
My alternate plan if they would not have accepted the $180, would be to advise them to call a tenant advocate lawyer for advice. They are generally free. I would have gone with the advice of the advocate, which may be more, or even could have been less. Maybe $0.
I resolved the situation. Everyone was happy. The new furnace should have less issues, and be cheaper to run.
Have you ever had a maintenance issue, such as an rental apartment with no heat where it made the apartment un-inhabitable? Or had a work around temporary fix? Did your landlord ever refuse to make a repair?