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A warranty of habitability is a type of implied warranty, meaning that although it is not explicitly stated, it is implied by the nature of the transaction, which concerns rental dwellings. In regions where such warranties are covered by the law, landlords must agree to keep the structures they rent in safe, habitable condition. If they do not, tenants can withhold rent for the purpose of making repairs or break their leases without penalties, on the grounds that the landlord is violating the warranty of habitability.
The exact definition of “habitability” varies, depending on the region. As a general rule, it means that a home should be free of insect pests, should have water, electricity, heat, and sewer services available although the landlord is not required to pay for these services, and should be in good condition with a lock on the door, a functioning roof, and similar features. Likewise, the building must be structurally sound. It does not necessarily have to be pleasant, but it should be clean and safe. Thus, peeling paint on the walls is not a violation of an implied warranty of habitability, but a faulty electrical system is.
When a tenant signs a lease, she or he does so with the intent of renting the structure, and the implied warranty of habitability comes into effect under the argument that people do not sign leases for structures they cannot occupy. It is important to note that sometimes a home does violate the implied warranty of habitability and the landlord claims to be in the process of making repairs, or says that repairs will be made after the lease is signed. Tenants should hesitate before signing such leases.
Some landlords criticize such laws, arguing that they make rental properties more expensive to maintain and that they also can have the effect of making a landlord akin to a utility operator. Others feel that implied warranty of habitability laws are reasonable, given that most of them concern only the most basic and routine of safety and health measures, and that these are measures a landlord would be engaging in any case as a part of maintenance of the investment.
Tenants should be careful before assuming that their landlords are violating the implied warranty of habitability. Such warranties are not in force in all areas, which case tenants who withhold rent or move out can be subject to penalty. Likewise, the wording of the definition of “habitable” is not universal. A tenant who is concerned about a health or safety situation should always bring it up with the landlord first, and if the landlord fails to take action, a lawyer who specializes in landlord-tenant law can be consulted.