California tenants are legally entitled to rental property that meets basic structural, health, and safety standards and is in good repair. If a landlord fails to take care of important maintenance (such as a leaky roof or a broken heater), tenants may have the legal rights to:
- withhold rent
- pay for repairs themselves and deduct the cost from their rent (“repair and deduct”)
- call state or local building health inspectors
- sue the landlord, or
- move out without notice.
It is illegal for landlords in California to retaliate against tenants who exercise their statutory rights, such as the right to repair and deduct.
This article explains the basic rules and procedures for two key rights available to California tenants: rent withholding and repair and deduct.
California Tenant Rights to Livable Premises
All landlords are legally required to offer livable or habitable premises when they originally rent a unit in California, and to maintain it in that condition throughout the rental term. According to state laws (Civil Code § 1941.1 and § 1941.3), at minimum every rental must have:
- effective waterproofing and weather protection of roof and exterior walls, including unbroken windows and doors
- functioning plumbing, heating, and electrical facilities, including hot and cold running water and a working toilet and kitchen sink
- clean and sanitary building and grounds (that is, free of debris, filth, rubbish, garbage, rodents, and vermin), with adequate trash receptacles
- well-maintained floors, stairways, and railings
- deadbolt locks on certain doors and windows
- no lead paint hazards, and
- no nuisances, a catchall provision referring to something that is dangerous to human life, detrimental to health, or morally offensive and obnoxious, such as allowing drug dealing on the premises.
Other laws that cover a California tenant’s right to a fit and habitable dwelling include H&S §17920.3 (also known the State Housing Law) and the Uniform Housing Code, an industry code that is adopted by the state legislature and counties and cities. In addition, local governments have their own city or county building and housing codes (different from industry codes) that regulate structural aspects of buildings and establish minimum requirements for light, ventilation, heating, and the like. In most urban areas of California, local codes are more thorough than the state’s general housing law.
To find the exact requirements your landlord must meet, contact your local building or housing authority. To find yours, call your mayor of city manager’s office or check your city or county website.
California Tenant Repair and Maintenance Responsibilities
Landlords aren’t the only ones with responsibilities. State housing law requires that tenants:
- keep their rentals as clean and sanitary as the premises permit
- dispose all rubbish and garbage in a clean and sanitary manner
- properly use and operate all electrical, gas, and plumbing fixtures, and
- not willfully or wantonly destroy, deface, damage, impair or remove any part of the structure or dwelling unit or the facilities or equipment.
How to Get Your California Landlord to Make Repairs
Then best approach is to put every maintenance and repair request to your landlord in writing (even if you call or email first), specifically describing the problem, its effect on you, what you want done, and when. If a broken front door lock or loose step poses a health or safety threat, say so.
Keep notes of every written repair request, conversation, and email to and from your landlord. If you and the landlord agree on a plan of action, write down your understanding of the agreement and send a copy to the landlord. Also, keep copies of any evidence of the problem, such as a photo of a broken railing on the front steps. You may need all this if your landlord tries to evict you for nonpayment of rent.
If your persistent and businesslike requests for repairs are ignored, tenants in California have several options, of which the most effective include rent withholding and “repair and deduct.”
How to Withhold Rent in California
Rent withholding basically means that you stop paying rent to the landlord until the repairs are made. Before doing so, you need to make sure you meet the following prerequisites:
It’s a serious repair or habitability problem, not just annoying. There must be a true habitability problem that imperils your health or safety, such as a broken heater in the middle of a major cold spell, as opposed to a leaky faucet.
The problem must not be something that you or a guest caused, either deliberately or through carelessness or neglect.
You told the landlord about the problem and gave him or her a reasonable opportunity to fix it. Set a reasonable deadline and let the landlord know you intend to withhold rent if the problem is not resolved. California law gives landlords 30 days to fix habitability problems, less if the circumstances warrant prompter attention. A broken front door lock, for example, requires immediate attention, not 30 days.
You’ve withheld a reasonable amount of rent, relative to the problem. Unless you’ve had to move out because of an unfit rental, you are not entitled to stop paying rent entirely. You must pay the landlord the reasonable value of the rental in its unfit state or deduct rent based on the value of the part of the unit affected by the defect.
You’ve complied with any local laws on rent withholding—for example, a requirement (in a few cities) that you pay the withheld rent directly to a city escrow account.
How to Make Repairs and Deduct the Cost (“Repair and Deduct”)
Another powerful legal remedy under state law (Civil Code § 1941.1-1942.5) for getting a landlord to make major repairs in California is called “repair and deduct.” It works like this: If you have tried and failed to get your landlord to fix a serious defect that makes your rental unit unfit, you can hire a repairperson to fix it (or buy a replacement part and do it yourself), and subtract the cost from the following month’s rent. Certain conditions apply:
- You can’t spend more than one month’s rent.
- You can’t use the repair and deduct remedy more than twice in any 12-month period.
- You can’t have caused the problem, and it can’t be something that is your responsibility (such as taking out the garbage).
As with rent withholding, notify the landlord first and give him or her a reasonable amount of time to fix the problem before make repairs. Also, gather bids and collect pricing information before you hire someone, especially if the problem requires expertise, as would be the case with a major plumbing or electrical defect.
California Guide to Tenant Rights
For an overview of California landlord-tenant law, including your rights to habitability and options for getting your landlord to make repairs, see http://www.dca.ca.gov/publications/landlordbook/index.shtml. Also, the Nolo book California Tenants’ Rights includes detailed discussions of the same topics, plus forms you can send your landlord, including a notice to repair and a notice of rent withholding.
California State and Local Law on Rent Withholding, Repair-and-Deduct, and Landlord Retaliation
For state law on rent withholding, see Green v. Superior Court, 10 Cal.3d 616 (1974).
For state law on repair and deduct, see Cal. Civ. Code § 1942.
For state law prohibiting landlord retaliation against tenants who exercise their legal rights, see Cal. Civ. Code § 1942.51.
See the Laws and Legal Research section of Nolo for advice on finding and reading statutes and court decisions.
Also, check your local housing ordinances for any city or county rules that cover tenant rights when it comes to repairs. Contact your local building or housing authority or local rent control board (if relevant). To find yours, call your mayor or city manager’s office or check your city or county website.