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A question we hear often from renters is, can you rent a house that is not up to code? Maybe you have found that your house or apartment has some flaws that you didn’t notice at first, and you’re wondering if you can continue to rent your home if it is not up to code.
It can also be tempting to wonder, can you rent a house that is not up to code, if you are looking for affordable housing and you think it could save you some money. You might be curious as to whether something that isn’t up to code on paper could be just as livable as a rental unit that technically is.
We have the question to these answers and more below.
What does it mean for a house to be “up to code”?
When we talk about renting houses and apartments, the term “up to code” is thrown around a lot. You might also hear the term “code compliant” in reference to houses you are looking to rent. But what exactly does it mean for a house to be up to code?
For a house to be up to code, it means that the construction meets all the safety standards set out by the city or town where the home is located. Here are some examples of safety standards that most homes must meet:
- Electrical wiring must be installed safely (e.g. there can’t be too many wires in one hole; wires must be protected from nails and screws).
- Bathrooms must be properly ventilated in order to prevent rotting and mold growth.
- Smoke alarms must be operational.
- Staircases must have railings.
- Windows and doors should not require a key to exit.
- There cannot be lead paint in a home where children are living.
Keep in mind that this is not an exhaustive list, and that housing code varies from town to town. The list above encompasses some of the more common violations that renters tend to encounter.
Is it legal to rent a house that is not up to code?
When it comes to renting a house that is not up to code, the responsibility falls on the landlord to make repairs and pay fines associated with code violations. In other words, while there are other reasons why it may not be advisable for a tenant to move into a house with safety violations, it is not illegal for one to do so.
However, if you have children under the age of 18, be mindful that in the eyes of the law, it is the parents’ responsibility to provide a safe and healthy living environment for their children. So while it is still the landlord’s responsibility to correct safety violations, living in a house that is not up to code could lead to problems with CPS if not addressed quickly.
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How do I know if the house I’m renting is up to code?
Some safety violations are obvious. For example, if the stairs in your home do not have railings or there are no smoke detectors, then you can be fairly certain that your home is not up to code. But what about less obvious violations, like issues with electrical wiring, or lead paint?
You won’t know for sure unless you have your home fully inspected by a third party who isn’t affiliated with your landlord. However, there are a few things you can do to help you determine whether your house is up to code.
- Ask the landlord. Really. You might find that your landlord will be forthcoming with information about repairs that need to be done in the home. Try to get this information in writing if you can. If the landlord tells you that faulty wiring is going to be fixed at some point in the future, hold them to it.
- Search public records for building violations. You can search online for “building code violations [your city or town]” and you may have the opportunity to search for building code violations at the address you would like to rent. For example, in New York City, you can search here. If you live in a smaller town, it might require a call to the office that handles building code violations. In any case, if your landlord has a lot of violations on record, this is a potential red flag that should signal that you might need to investigate further before renting.
- Speak to the neighbors or a former tenant. If you happen to know who the former tenant at the address is, try sending them a message on Facebook or contacting them in another way to ask if they’re comfortable sharing their experience in the home. Neighbors may have some insight as well.
- Develop a friendly rapport with the superintendent or property manager. Often times, the landlord is not around much, and they have a property manager or superintendent who lives nearby to help out with daily needs at the property. Developing a good relationship with this person can work in your favor, and they might be able to offer some insight about issues in the building that need to be addressed.
So, can you rent a house that is not up to code?
The answer to this question, unfortunately, is, it depends.
No, it is not advisable to sign a lease before code violations are addressed by the landlord. It is an especially bad idea if you have children under the age of 18. But we know that reality doesn’t always work that way.
Legally, you are not liable for renting a house that is not up to code, but your safety is important. If there is a small violation, like a missing smoke detector, you might find that it’s easier to buy one yourself than to negotiate with the landlord to have one installed before you move in. But if there is pervasive mold in the bathroom or exposed wiring, you might think twice.
For more information about housing code violations and when to report them, check out this article from Low Income Relief.