Rent Never Abates to Zero and Other Tips for Tenants (again!)

I originally wrote this post in 2018. While I don’t love utilizing old blog posts, this is an important topic and the fact that more tenants don’t know their rights\get caught in these trap doors, is a personal pet peeve. With COVID dollars drying up and evictions back in person in Milwaukee County, I thought it was a good time to dust off this post and re-visit it.

In Wisconsin, there are plenty of “gotchas” or “trap doors” in the law for both tenants and landlords – but when\if mistakes happen, the outcomes often disproportionately impact tenants.  Therefore, if you’re about to rent a new place for summer, keep these tips in mind!

Get a Check-In Sheet (and Take Pictures!)

I mentioned this in a previous post post, but a Check-In sheet is even more important for Tenants.  A Check-In sheet allows you to mark pre-existing damage to the property so you won’t be held accountable for it when you move out!  Although a Landlord is required to provide a Check-In sheet to you when you move in, many do not.  Therefore, you should take it upon yourself to note the damage and take pictures too.  Within 10 days of moving in (the usual deadline), you should provide your Check-In sheet and pictures to the Landlord.  Also, make sure to keep copies of everything – so if you have to prove what was damaged before, it will be a piece of cake!

New Money Goes to Old Debt First

This is important to remember:  If you owe money to a landlord for back rent, “new money” you pay the landlord will be applied to the oldest debt first – not the amount currently due for this month.

For example, if you owe $500 in back rent, and rent for June 1st is $500 – you will technically have to pay $1000 by June 1 to avoid eviction.  If you pay only $500 (the monthly rent) it will be applied to the back rent due, and you will still owe for June 1.  Many tenants incorrectly think that they can pay for the “current” month and take extra time to catch up on the “back rent” – but that is not the case because “new money” is always applied to the oldest debt first.

Rent Never Abates to Zero!

Imagine this scenario: you have a hole in your roof and have asked the Landlord to fix it 10 times to no avail; you’re at your wits end.  In a last ditch attempt to get the Landlord’s attention, you withhold rent and say “I’m not going to pay you one more dollar until you fix my roof!”  Not a good idea – you just got evicted!

If you are deprived of the normal use of your rented home, you are not liable for full payment of the rent.  The thought being, you should only pay “full” rent when you have the “full” use of your home.  But, if you stay in the home (even with a hole in the roof) rent will never be $0; the thought there being, even with the hole in the roof – you’re still using some of the home and therefore should pay some of the rent  Wis. Stat. Sec. 704.07(4).  This is a mistake a ton of tenants make and if you simply pay no rent then there is basically no defense that you can make against the eviction.  So, what should you do if a Landlord repeatedly fails to make requested repairs?

1) Always make sure your requests for repair are in writing and delivered to the landlord in accordance with your lease.  Phone calls and visits to the leasing office to request repairs won’t cut it – you need to make sure your requests are in writing so you can prove you made the requests later.

2) Keep a list noting the dates\times you made each repair request.

3) If the Landlord fails to make the repairs after repeated written requests to do so, then you should write a letter with your next rent payment stating that rent will be abated by some amount (not to $0!) the following month and until the repairs are made.

*Please Note* This is NOT the procedure to follow for minor repairs (rent only abates if the problem is serious and impacts habitability!) and should be used with caution no matter what.   You will have to defend the amount of rent you withheld, so make sure it is reasonable.

If you have questions, ask us! Knowing your rights is important!