Tenants in California, by law, are entitled to rental property that is habitable. In other words, it must meet basic health and safety standards and is in generally good repair. Habitability is a function of the building codes combined with common sense workability. When a tenant is presented with a problem like a broken pipe, a failed water heater, or a defective electrical system they are granted certain statutory rights.
If a landlord or property management company fails to repair or adequately address the issue, once given proper notice, then the tenant has remedies. First, the tenant can pay for the repairs themselves and deduct the cost of the repairs from their rent. Second, the tenant can withhold rent. Third, the tenant can call the local code enforcement officer for an inspection which could lead to administrative problems for the landlord. Fourth, the tenant can file a lawsuit against the landlord. Finally, the tenant may move out without giving any further notice provided the breach of habitability is sufficient to warrant such action.
Retaliation by Landlords Is Forbidden
It is not uncommon for a landlord or property manager to retaliate against a tenant who complains. In California it is illegal for a landlord to retaliate against a tenant complaining about the unit conditions if legitimate. It happens all the time and tenants are typically naïve that they have rights which can be trampled on by the overpowering landlord.
All people placing rental units in the stream of commerce have a duty to have the units in a habitable condition, and to maintain it in a habitable condition throughout the term of the lease. The specific items identified by California Civil Code Section 1941 et. seq. and the California Housing Code and/or California Health and Safety Code Section 17920.3 are:
- Effective waterproofing and weather protection of roof and exterior walls, including unbroken doors and windows
- Plumbing, heating, electrical, kitchen, and bathroom facilities that are functioning
- Sanitary and clean building and surrounding grounds – which are free of debris, rubbish, garbage and rodents – with trash receptacles
- Dead-bolt locks on entry doors and locking devices on windows
- And no nuisances or any other thing that is dangerous to human life, health, etc.
Tenants Are Legally Required To Keep Their Units Sanitary and Clean
The state housing laws also require tenants to keep their units sanitary, clean, and without nuisance. Tenants are also required to dispose of all garbage. Tenants are required to use and operate the functions and components of the unit in their intended manner. Finally, tenants must not willfully destroy, deface, damage, impair or remove any part of the unit including equipment.
As described above the landlord is required to make repairs to items to keep the unit habitable. It is always a best practice to make all communications between landlords and tenant writing so that the communication is actually a record of the issue. Some property management companies have “Maintenance Request” buttons or tabs on their websites which automatically provides a written description and record of the maintenance request. A tenant should also include any and all of their concerns, photos, etc. with their maintenance request. If you have a verbal conversation with the landlord make sure to send them a confirming email which documents the conversation and creates a record.
If the landlord verbally confirms that the repairs will be made send another email that confirms the landlord’s promise. A written confirmation from the tenant will remind the landlord of the obligation to repair and will cement the record.
If The Landlord Fails To Repair A Tenant Can Do What?
That’s right, after a landlord has been adequately noticed of a problem with the functionality of a component of the unit which effects habitability and fails to respond timely the tenant can make repairs themselves and deduct the reasonable cost of the repair from their next month’s rent payment. See California Civil Code Sections 1941.1 through 1942.5. A copy of the receipt for the work and materials must be presented to the landlord with the reduced rent for a complete record. There are some rules associated with this process:
- The repair cost cannot be more than one month’s rent
- This remedy can only be used one time in any twelve month period
- The tenant must not be the cause of the problem that was repaired
It is also important to collect at least three bids before performing the work such that the landlord cannot later argue that you took the highest possible bid for the work, or worse the tenant did not look into the cost and could have had it performed for less money.
Although a very serious step to take, withholding of the rent until the landlord repairs the issue is also a remedy the tenant has in their quiver of statutory arrows. First of all the issue must be very serious, i.e., the heater broke in the middle of freezing temperatures, or the water heater has been out and is leaking all over the unit. These types of issues require immediate attention and if the landlord fails to repair after reasonable notice then this is proper grounds to withhold rent. Again the tenant can’t be the cause of the broken item – if the tenant caused the problem the tenant is responsible to repair. For typical habitability issues usually thirty days is a sufficient amount of time, but for more pressing issues like the ones described above the landlord must act with diligence.
The amount of rent that a tenant may withhold should be equivalent to the cost of the repair – relative to the problem. If a tenant is forced to move out because of a major flood or some other catastrophe that is a different story. In either case the tenant can withhold an amount commensurate with the repair, but must pay the landlord the reasonable amount of rent for the unfit rental. Alternatively, the tenant can deduct rent based on the value of the portion of the unit unaffected by the defective component (court’s will always place some value on a unit even if there are defective components).
Abandonment of the Unit Can Be Your Out
Also a very serious step abandonment of the unit can be legally upheld provided the tenant met the statutory requirements which are very similar to repair and deduct and withholding of the rent. Once the landlord has been put on notice the repairs must be made within a reasonable time. Again the issue must be very serious and the tenant can’t be the cause of the broken item – if the tenant caused the problem the tenant is responsible to repair and this remedy is unavailable. Once a landlord or property manager has failed to address a serious issue the tenant has abandonment as an alternative to putting up with an unrepaired or uninhabitable unit.
There are numerous tenants’ resources available and below is one link that provides the ultimate information for comprehensive tenant’s rights called, “California Guide to Tenant’s Rights.”
California Law on Repair & Deduct, Withholding Rents, and Abandonment of Leased Premises is Well Documented
The link below is outline of tenant’s rights in the state of California with respect to Repair and Deduct, Withholding Rents, and Abandonment of Leased Premises
San Francisco Bay Area County Landlord-Tenants Websites
Santa Clara County Landlord-Tenant Self-Help
San Mateo County Landlord-Tenant Legal Aid
Alameda County Landlord-Tenant Resources
San Francisco County Rent Board
Santa Cruz County Landlord-Tenants Resources
Professional Property Management Can Keep Owners and Tenants on the Right Side of the Law
It always makes sense to hire a professional property manager to manage a rental or investment property. By doing so you can minimize risk, minimize potential legal landlord-tenant issues, and help prevent any of the situations described above. Silicon Valley Property Management Group is a professional property management company owned and managed by an experienced real estate attorney with over 28 years of construction and real property experience. We are always available to answer any questions, inquiries, and brainstorm real estate strategies, and investment property solutions in Palo Alto or any surrounding Bay Area community.
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David has authored a published law review article, two real estate books, and over 120 real estate blog articles.