Is Your Heat On?

We're hearing from a lot of tenants right now - not everyone has their heat on yet. And it's chilly out there. Summer seems to be ending with a frosty whimper, and for the tenants living in units where the heat hasn't yet been turned on... It's like the ice bucket challenge, without the ice, the bucket, and the positive social impact. Just tenants in their apartments, feeling cold.

So, what's to be done? Lots. Apartment temperatures are not supposed to sink below 67 degrees, whether or not it's still technically summer.  Steps for tenants and landlords, below.

For Tenants:

1. Write a letter. It's important to write a letter, even if you don't think it'll work. Really. I promise. It'll give you some proof that you told the landlord, in case things go south (and not in a nice warm way; in a pipes bursting and all your stuff got ruined way). Also, it gives you a chance to be careful about your tone. Some tools, just for you:

2. Write Another Letter (Optional): We encourage this, if you have the capacity to be patient. If your house is 65 degrees, this might be the step for you. If your house is 40 degrees, definitely not. It helps to follow up, explain that the deadline has passed, and that unfortunately, you'll be forced to call the building inspector if no change in the situation occurs.

3. Call the Building Inspector: If, after your letters, your landlord hasn't turned the heat on, then it's probably time to call the building inspector. If there's an operational Building Inspection Department in your area, they can order the landlord to fix certain problems, like heat. The Building Inspector will order the landlord to make the repairs by a deadline and will come back to see that the repairs are complete. See our list of Local Building Inspectors at the bottom of our Repairs page

If you live in an area that has no building inspector, you can try calling a fire department or public health inspector or the Department of Safety and Professional Services. Sometimes they are able to visit a home that is in need of repairs and sometimes they are able to persuade the landlord to take more significant action.

For those living in Madison and Fitchburg, after calling the building inspector, there are further steps you can take - check out our MadFitch Repairs page for information on "rent abatement," and "repair and deduct" procedures.

4. File a complaint with Consumer Protection: As an after-the-fact step, it might be worthwhile to file a complaint with the Department of Agriculture, Trade & Consumer Protection. They have the capacity to mediate some disputes, and will keep complaint records for landlords, allowing future tenants to possibly steer clear. 


For Landlords:

1. Some Sympathy: It can be tough, especially if you're a small time landlord, and you've seen mounting costs. It can be hard to maintain all the services you're supposed to, and it can be hard if there's no profit in it, when there was supposed to be.  But, this is a business, and it's your duty to make sure that the rent is set at a level where it's worthwhile for you to provide the services you've promised to provide. If not, that's on you, not the tenant.

2. The Truth: It will be costlier not to turn the heat on. I'm serious. Repair the furnace (can you imagine the costs if the pipes burst?), before the tenant gets to the point where they can sue you for DOUBLE their expenses for this problem.

3. Get Some Help: There are organizations that can help weather proof a home. In Madison, Project Home can install efficient furnaces and do some weatherproofing. Around Wisconsin, you can seek energy audits from utility companies. If you're looking for organizations that might be able to help you out in your area, check out 211 or your utility company - they're often good places to start.


What the laws actually say, to make us conclude these things:

  • Wis. Stat. 704.07(2)(a)2 says that it's the landlord's duty to maintain and repair "all equipment under the landlord's control necessary to supply services that the landlord has expressly or impliedly agreed to furnish to the tenant, such as heat...," so it's definitely the landlord's job to make the heat work.
  • ATCP 134.04(2)(b)2 says that a landlord must disclose to the tenant, before moving in, if the heating system is not capable of maintaining at least 67°F in all living areas of the apartment, year round ("during all seasons of the year in which the dwelling unit may be occupied"). If there hasn't been any disclosure to the tenant, BEFORE moving in, that the furnace doesn't work, then it needs to be treated like it works and can do this whole heat thing. 


* To be clear, if the lease says that the tenant has to pay for heating bills, then the tenant has to pay for heat. Wisconsin has a moratorium on turning off heat from November 1 - April 15, but if the tenant doesn't pay their heating bill, then it's not the landlord's responsibility to get that heat turned back on.  It is the landlord's responsibility to make sure it's possible to have heat that is at least 67°F.


Also, did you know that we aren't attorneys here at the TRC? And this isn't legal advice, either. If what we've written doesn't sound right to you, consult with someone you trust. A list of housing attorneys is available here