You may be a couple days late on making your rent payment. You may have lost hot water for the fourth time in two months, with your landlord now avoiding your phone calls. You may still be waiting on your security deposit long after you moved out of your last apartment.
Whatever the issue may be, you’re certainly not the first renter in California to wonder what your rights are when living under a landlord. Unfortunately, most tenants don’t wonder until there’s already a problem.
Ken Carlson, a California attorney who specializes in tenant-landlord law, explains that there are good landlords who respect their tenants, charge fair rent and keep long-term tenants. But there are also bad landlords who take advantage of the legal system and threaten eviction to avoid making necessary repairs.
“If landlords treated their tenants like any other business person in America would to their customers, especially those who pay tens of thousands of dollars per year, I would have to change my specialty,” Carlson wrote in an email. “But I’m safe. It will never happen. I owe a very successful practice to landlord arrogance.”
Regardless of whether you’re dealing with a good-natured landlord, you should know the conditions and treatment you’re entitled to as a tenant in California.
Civil Rights and Fair Housing
Housing-related civil rights violations are protected by federal law under the Fair Housing Act, which was originally passed in 1968 and has been amended since to include more protections. The Fair Housing Act restricts landlords nationwide from refusing housing to tenants based on race, nationality, sex, familial status, religion or disability.
Beyond these protections, California prohibits housing discrimination based on race or color, ancestry or national origin, religion, mental or physical disability, sex or gender, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, genetic information, marital status, familial income or source of income. These laws are enforced by the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing.
Concerns about discrimination that violate federal fair housing rights are often handled by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. There are also state organizations, like the Fair Housing Advocates of Northern California, that can provide insight and education and even investigate suspected cases of discrimination covering both federal- and state-protected classes. In cases where discrimination is detected, the nonprofit organization can even file a lawsuit on behalf of the complainant or serve as the complainant, says Casey Epp, supervising attorney for Fair Housing Advocates of Northern California.
In California, a landlord may file for eviction if:
- The tenant does not pay rent on time.
- The tenant breaks the rules of the lease and is unwilling to right them.
- The tenant or guest of the tenant causes damage that leads to loss in property value.
- The tenant is a repeated nuisance to neighbors or other tenants.
- The tenant commits a crime on the property.
Additionally, if the tenant stays beyond the lease expiration or if the landlord provides proper notice of lease termination, eviction can occur. Unless a county or city ordinance rules otherwise, Epp explains that a California landlord can "terminate (the lease) for no reason at all. All you need is a 60-day notice." Rent control established by a city or county is often a scenario where further reason is needed for a landlord to terminate a lease.
To file an eviction, the landlord must give the tenant three days to pay rent or remedy the rental agreement violation. Following that, the landlord provides a three-day unconditional notice to quit, which means the tenant has three days to either pack up and move out or choose to fight a formal eviction, which would involve going to court to argue the landlord improperly provided notice or otherwise violated the tenant's rights in providing notice, which required documented proof. If the tenant has not moved out by the end of the notice to quit, the landlord may file for eviction.
When fighting eviction, the tenant has a right to remain at the property. But the scariest part of fighting an eviction is that if the tenant loses, the eviction is on his or her record, which can make it difficult to rent in the future. Carlson puts it simply: “Evicted tenants are blacklisted for life, so the risk of asserting rights is dangerous.” As a result, many tenants who receive notice will move out before the landlord goes to court. While no formal eviction has taken place, it feels that way to the displaced tenant.
All tenants have a right to live in a habitable property. This means there must be running water (both hot and cold), electricity and heating or air conditioning in extreme outdoor temperatures. Measures must also be taken to ensure the tenant's physical health and safety. Mold growth or a pest infestation are two examples of potentially uninhabitable conditions that pose a danger to the tenant’s health.
If the landlord has allowed the property to become uninhabitable and will not make repairs, tenants in California have the right to withhold rent under the warranty of habitability. Before choosing to withhold rent, be sure you’ve documented the uninhabitable conditions thoroughly by taking photos and noting the dates major issues occurred, and ensure you have dated proof of requests to fix the issue.
However, the landlord can still pursue eviction as soon as the tenant fails to pay rent. Like with all eviction cases, tenants have a right to fight an eviction in court, but keep in mind that proceedings can drag on and the outcome may not be ideal. Carlson notes that the fear of eviction in cases like this is why many tenants choose to simply move rather than deal with the possibility of expensive court proceedings or an eviction on their record.
The size of a security deposit for a rental in California is limited to two months’ rent if the property is unfurnished, and three months’ rent if the property is furnished. California law even gets specific enough to note that a landlord may charge an extra half month’s rent if the tenant has a waterbed, presumably for the potential water damage that could occur if the bed breaks.
Landlords can deduct money from a security deposit in order to repair damage to the property caused by either the tenant or guests, pay for the cost to clean the property after the tenant moves out to return it to the state it was in prior to the tenant moving in or to cover any unpaid rent. Deductions cannot be made to repair or replace items that are based on normal wear and tear, however.
The landlord has 21 days from when the tenant moves out to return a full or partial security deposit, along with information about why any money was withheld. When all or part of the deposit is kept by the landlord, he or she is required to write a letter explaining the decision, provide an itemized list of deductions and include a check with the remaining deposit being refunded and copies of all receipts that led to the total cost of the deductions.
Rent control or stabilization may limit the size of a rent increase, provide limits on causes of eviction or require assistance to help relocate tenants. Rent control is often limited to specific sections or neighborhoods of a city.
California does not establish rent control at the state level, but local governments are allowed to have rent control under municipal or county ordinances. Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, Beverly Hills and Berkeley are just a few of the roughly dozen cities throughout the state with rent control.
Just because a city has rent control established, however, does not mean that all landlords know how to properly implement it. The Los Angeles Housing + Community Investment Department, or HCIDLA, receives as many as 10,000 complaints per year regarding the city's Rent Stabilization Ordinance, says Anna Ortega, director of the Rent Stabilization Division at HCIDLA.
Finding Resources and Fighting Back
When the tenant doesn’t know his or her rights and the landlord is either equally ignorant or willfully disregarding them, it’s too easy for the tenant to be taken advantage of. Don’t be afraid to seek the help of a professional in a local tenant rights organization, an attorney or other rental housing specialist.
The California Attorney General recommends resources such as seeking legal aid programs for low-cost assistance, consulting tenant rights organizations and contacting the county court or the Department of Fair Employment and Housing, among other options.
It may also be useful to contact the housing-related department for your city. HCIDLA, for example, investigates complaints and code violations and also operates a hotline for all housing questions and puts on workshops for landlords and tenants. "A lot of people get in touch just for information," Ortega says.
To be able to argue a case in court – be it over unpaid rent, uninhabitable conditions or an eviction filing – it’s important to keep a record of all contact with your landlord and property manager. Save emails and handwritten notes, document face-to-face interactions and send follow-up emails when possible. You want to be able to show the court when you requested maintenance, paid rent and allowed the landlord to enter your home, for example.
Pulling one over on your property manager won't work.
Your ability to communicate with your landlord or property manager as a renter is key to living happily and in peace. When you fail to notify your landlord of problems you encounter – or try to hide guests or other things that may not be permitted in your lease – the relationship is often compromised. Especially in instances when you’ve brought in an unauthorized pet or let a maintenance issue get worse due to not reporting it, you may find yourself having to pay your landlord extra, losing your security deposit or even getting evicted.Stay in touch.
Stay in touch.
Any good landlord will encourage tenants to be in communication often, which makes it easy to request maintenance or ask a question about what the lease allows. Property management companies often offer multiple forms of communication, from face-to-face conversation with a receptionist or leasing agent to contact via email or an online resident portal, says Lynn Edmondson, regional manager of Wendover Housing Partners, a property management company based in Altamonte Springs, Florida. Once you send a request, the property manager or landlord will then “communicate in writing about what’s going on and what needs to be done,” Edmondson says. Read on for seven things you shouldn’t – and likely won’t be able to – hide from your landlord.A new roommate
A new roommate
Living with a roommate is a great way to save on housing expenses, but your landlord has to know about said roommate – and approve. It may be a matter of simply revising the lease once you notify your landlord of the desired addition, but your landlord also has the right to run the potential roommate through the same vetting process as with every other tenant, which can include a credit check, employment confirmation and previous residence referrals. If you sneak a roommate in, your illegal co-tenant could be evicted. One exception is when you have a dependent, which can be a child, elderly parent or an adult relative you legally care for. Laws in certain states clarify that “you’re not allowed to ask an applicant if they have any dependents living in the unit with them,” says Nat Kunes, vice president of product at AppFolio, a full-suite property management software company. Check your state's landlord-tenant laws, which should be available online, for more information.A sublet
Just like a roommate, sneaking a sublet tenant into your rental will likely be found out by a landlord, and it can have devastating consequences. Always review your lease first for a subleasing policy. The landlord may not allow sublets at all or could require the subtenant to go through the same vetting process all residents go through when applying to live there. Also check your state laws on subleasing, which may give you more or less leeway depending on how detailed the law is. In South Carolina, for example, the law states a sublease agreement isn’t valid unless the landlord has signed off on it. An illegal sublet could result in your eviction for violating the lease, as well as the subtenant’s eviction for residing there illegally.A pet
A dog or cat won’t help you pay the rent, but millions of Americans love adding to the rental family by bringing a pet home. Again, however, your landlord has the right to establish a no-pets policy or place restrictions on the pets allowed, such as the type of animal, size and breed. “If the pet [is] qualified to live there, it’s just a minor thing of changing the lease to add that and collect the appropriate fee,” Edmondson says. If you get caught keeping a pet in your place when the landlord hasn’t approved it, you’ll likely have to fork over the fees anyway. But if the place doesn’t allow pets, you’ll likely either be asked to move out or rehome your pet.Pet damage
Outside of properly notifying your landlord or property manager of a new pet, Edmondson says damage to a rental caused by a pet is one of the more common issues she sees residents try to cover up. Whether you struggled to housetrain a puppy or your cat loves scaling the blinds, the best course of action is to own up to the damage before moving out. “I’ve had that happen several times, when [cleaners] go in to clean the carpet and they come back and say, ‘We can’t clean it, there’s too much pet damage,’” Edmondson says. You’ll have to pay for the repairs regardless, but it keeps a more positive interaction between you and the property manager if you’re honest. Trying to get away with damage could also lead to a negative report from the property manager if any future landlord calls to check on your residential history.Maintenance problems
Whether it’s a backed-up toilet, a leaky roof or fire damage in the kitchen, any problem should be reported to your landlord or property manager as soon as you become aware of it. “A lot of those types of maintenance issues that over time get much, much worse,” Kunes says, noting a leak can lead to extensive water damage and mold. Edmondson says there are tenants who simply don’t report such issues for fear of having to cover damage they caused: “They think after they move out they will not be responsible for those damages.” Of course, any damages outside normal wear and tear will come out of your security deposit, and you can additionally be billed for damages exceeding that amount.Broken appliances
If the fridge, dryer, garbage disposal or any other appliance stops working properly, you have the right to report it and expect it to be fixed. There’s a good chance the landlord will replace an older appliance at no charge to you. If the appliance is relatively new or was damaged from particularly hard use, the landlord may look to you to cover it. If you move out before notifying the landlord, it will be discovered, and you’ll be expected to pay it, Edmondson says.A pest problem
A pest problem
Pests can get into a rental property in a variety of ways: Rodents could be stirred up by construction next door, or maybe other tenants have a habit of leaving food uncovered on the counter or table. Either way, it’s imperative you notify your landlord immediately about a pest problem so it can be taken care of. Most large apartment complexes have standing relationships with pest control companies, which consistently work to keep pests from accessing any rental homes and limit the spread of those that do get inside. If you don’t start communicating with your property manager early on, the problem could become worse – and the blame may fall on you as a result. “That could be a tenant-caused issue that the tenant could be responsible for to pay,” Kunes says.Read More
She has appeared in media interviews across the U.S. including National Public Radio, WTOP (Washington, D.C.) and KOH (Reno, Nevada) and various print publications, as well as having served on panels discussing real estate development, city planning policy and homebuilding.
Previously, she served as a researcher of commercial real estate transactions and information, and is currently a member of the National Association of Real Estate Editors. Thorsby studied Political Science at the University of Michigan, where she also served as a news reporter and editor for the student newspaper The Michigan Daily. Follow her on Twitter or write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.