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Heating 101: What NYC renters need to know

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How much total do you plan to tip the building staff this year?

Temperatures hovered around the high 70s for most of the first two weeks of October, even hitting the 80s on a couple of days. But this past weekend, the mercury dipped below the magic number of 55 degrees, meaning fall has finally arrived—and your building’s heat should have kicked into gear.

If it did, great; your building is compliant with the city’s laws for providing apartment heat. Still not hearing the hiss of the radiator? You may have a complaint for 311.What exactly are the rules? And what do you do if you’re living in a place that’s still too cold, or, equally likely, too hot? There are solutions.

[Editor's note: An earlier version of this post was published in 2017, and was updated with new information in October 2018.]

The rules

The city's so-called heat season began on October 1st, meaning that if the mercury drops below 55 degrees during the day (6 a.m. to 10 p.m.), your landlord has to crank up the heat so that your apartment is at least 68 degrees. At night, the inside temperature must be at least 62 degrees, regardless of the outside temperature. (Sixty-two at night used to be required only if the temperature fell below 40 degrees outside, but this rule was updated last year.) This is in effect until May 31st.

If you don't have heat: 

  • First, contact your building owner, managing agent, or super and let them know that it's time to turn up the temperature. 
  • If they don't honor your request or otherwise fail to respond, call 311, which can get the Department of Housing Preservation and Development involved. HPD may come to the building and stick your landlord with a costly violation (last year, HPD inspectors wrote 4,755 heat violations, an increase of 36 percent from the prior year), and if management still doesn't act, the agency will send a contractor to fix the problem (another cost the landlord will likely try to avoid). More info on the process is available here
  • If the issue is a broken boiler or other problem with the heating system, you may be entitled to a break on your rent for the days you spent shivering, since landlords are legally required to provide heat to tenants. That said, don't automatically withhold rent. In a worst case scenario, you could wind up in housing court for failing to pay, and even if you'd likely win, it could cost a lot in legal fees and put a black mark on your record as a tenant. A better option: Negotiate with the landlord for a rent abatement for the following month, and get the agreement in writing. 

If you do have heat, but you're still cold:

  • Sixty-eight degrees isn't exactly balmy. If you're considering getting an electric space heater (check out our picks for stylish ones that won't harsh your apartment's aesthetics), be sure to take the necessary fire safety precautions. For example, space heaters should never be kept near anything that could burn, such as furniture and rugs; set up in bathrooms or kitchens because of the proximity of running water; or placed on an uneven or raised surface, lest they tip over. Also, to avoid overloading your electrical outlets, plug space heaters into a dedicated outlet, not a power strip.
  • Space heaters suck up electricity (and bump up your power bills), but there are plenty of creative and affordable ways to stay toasty at home, including insulating the windows with bubble wrap and cooking with a crock pot (the warmth will permeate the room while you're at work). 
  • And just in case your air-conditioner is still in your window, letting the cold in the cracks, here are some tips on the best way to take it out and store it

If it's too hot:

It's an annoying fact of New York City life that renters are just as likely to get tropical levels of hot air blasting out of their radiators as not enough heat. That's because traditional steam systems in New York's apartment buildings don't allow for individual control, and it's tricky to balance the heat so that units on different floors and of different sizes all experience the optimum temperature. But there are solutions:

  • You can install a device on an old radiator that will essentially let you regulate the heat that comes out. First, take a look underneath: If there's one pipe coming out of the floor, you'll need a thermostatic radiator valve, which a super or plumber can install for a few hundred dollars. (These often require maintenance every year or two.) If there are two pipes underneath, you'll need a more sophisticated "solenoid" device, which can run up to $1,000, including installation.
  • A more modern version is also available from the makers of the Cozy, a wifi-enabled thermal radiator cover that lets users regulate their own heat through a mobile app (and save owners energy costs). It's currently only available for full-building installations.