By Jedidiah McKeehan

If you are renting a house, and something breaks, or is not working, who is responsible for fixing it?  You may think that the landlord is responsible for fixing it, and the landlord may say you are responsible for it, but what does the law actually say?

There is an entire chapter in the Tennessee Code that discusses landlord-tenant matters.  That chapter is called the Uniform Residential Landlord Tenant Act or URLTA.  By its own terms, the URLTA is only supposed to apply to counties having populations greater than 75,000 as of the 2010 federal census, however, you will see many counties in Tennessee applying the laws contained in the URLTA regardless of their population.

Contained in the URLTA are two sections that address this topic.  Tennessee Code Annotated section 66-28-304 is titled, “Maintenance by landlord.”

This law states that the landlord must, “Make all repairs and do whatever is necessary to put and keep the premises in a fit and habitable condition.”  Further, “the landlord and tenant may agree in writing that the tenant perform specified repairs, maintenance tasks, alterations, and remodeling.”

The URLTA also contains, Tennessee Code Annotated section 66-2-8-502, which is titled, “Failure to supply essential services.”

This law covers what items are the responsibility of the landlord for upkeep and maintenance of the rented premises.  As you might have already guessed, the landlord needs to provide “essential services.”  The law defines “essential services,” as, “utility services, including gas, heat, electricity, and any other obligations imposed upon the landlord which materially affect the health and safety of the tenant.”

Working in conjunction with the definition of essential services, the law also says, that the tenant’s rights under this law, “do not arise until the tenant has given written notice to the landlord and has shown that the condition was not caused by the deliberate or negligent act or omission of the tenant, a member of the tenant’s family, or other person on the premises with the tenant’s consent.”

As you can see, there is a whole lot that is not covered by the definition and a whole lot that is open to interpretation.  What if there is a whole in the drywall?  In my opinion, even if the tenant can show that they did not cause the hole, it is highly questionable whether a hole in the drywall rises to the level of an essential services that would require the landlord to fix it.

What about a stopped up toilet?  I would argue that is probably an essential service and the landlord must fix this to keep the property in fit and habitable condition, however, the tenant would have to show that the tenant did not cause the stopped up toilet by their own deliberate or negligent acts.

What are the tenant’s remedies if the landlord refuses to provide essential services?  The law addresses that as well.

If the landlord deliberately or negligently fails to supply essential services, the tenant shall give written notice to the landlord specifying the breach and may do one of the following:

  1. Procure essential services during the period of the landlord’s noncompliance and deduct their actual and reasonable costs from the rent;
  2. Recover damages based upon the diminution in the fair rental value of the dwelling unit, provided tenant continues to occupy premises; or
  3. Procure reasonable substitute housing during the period of the landlord’s noncompliance, in which case the tenant is excused from paying rent for the period of the landlord’s noncompliance.

Jedidiah McKeehan is an attorney practicing in Knox County and surrounding counties.  He works in many areas, including criminal, personal injury, landlord-tenant, probate, and estate planning. Visit for more information about this legal issue and other legal issues.