California Tenants' Rights

California Tenants' Rights

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California Tenants' Rights

, Attorney and , Attorney

, 20th Edition

Protect your rights as a California renter with this guide to tenant-landlord law, free of the legalese.  California Tenants' Rights provides you with the specific, current information you need, and discusses how to:

  • understand and negotiate a lease
  • break a lease with minimum fall-out
  • get your security deposit back

See below for a full product description.

California tenants: Protect your legal rights

Can you be turned down because you have kids or are a student—or are over age 60 or have a pet? Did you find a termination or late rent notice on the front door? Need to respond to an eviction lawsuit, or break a lease?

You’ll find plain-English help here. California Tenants’ Rights also helps you with roommates who don’t pull their weight, disruptive neighbors, landlords who don’t know (or won’t follow) state laws, and local rent control ordinances. This book provides all the information and key forms you need to:

  • understand and negotiate a lease
  • fight discrimination
  • get the landlord to make repairs
  • deal with a landlord who invades your privacy
  • break a lease with minimum fall-out
  • get your security deposit back
  • deal with health hazards: bedbugs, mold, lead, and more, and
  • know your options if your rental gets foreclosed.

Renters have relied on California Tenants’ Rights for nearly 35 years. The 20th edition is completely updated to cover strategies for fighting an eviction in court, with line-by-line instructions on completing the required forms. The book also includes detailed information on local rent control ordinances, and advice on tenant rights to sublet space through Airbnb and other short-term rental services.

Check out Nolo's list of California products. Not a California resident? Check out Renter's Rights.

“Your legal rights and how to pursue them are spelled out in California Tenants’ Rights.”
-San Diego Union-Tribune

“Every renter in California should know about California Tenants’ Rights…”
-San Francisco Examiner

“ Want to break a lease? The landlord won’t make needed repairs? Want to get your deposit back when you move out? The answer to these and many other questions about the magic of renting are answered in detail in California Tenants’ Rights.”
-Oakland Tribune

ISBN
9781413322651
Number of Pages
448
Included Forms

Forms to use when your tenancy begins

  • Landlord-Tenant Checklist
  • Fixed-Term Residential Lease
  • Month-to-Month Residential Rental Agreement

Forms to use during your tenancy

  • Notice of Rent Withholding
  • Notice to Repair
  • Notice of Rent Withholding

Forms to use when fighting an eviction

  • Proof of Service by First-Class Mail—Civil
  • Proof of Service by First-Class Mail—Civil (Persons Served)
  • Request to Waive Court Fees
  • Information sheet on Waiver of Superior Court Fees and Costs
  • Application for Waiver of Court Fees and Costs
  • Information Sheet on Waiver of Court Fees and Costs
  • Order on Application for Waiver of Additional Court Fees and Costs
  • Prejudgment Claim to Right of Possession
  • Blank Numbered Legal Paper
  • Blank Numbered Legal Paper With Superior Court heading
  • Proof of Service by Mail
  • Demurrer
  • Points and Authorities in Support of Demurrer
  • Notice of Hearing on Demurrer
  • Answer -- Unlawful Detainer
  • Request to Inspect and for Production of Documents
  • Form Interrogatories -- Unlawful Detainer
  • Settlement Agreement
  • Demand for Jury Trial

Forms to use if you lose an eviction

  • Application and Declaration for Relief from Eviction
  • Order Granting Relief From Eviction
  • Application and Declaration for Stay of Eviction
  • Order Granting Stay of Eviction
  • Notice of Appeal and Notice to Prepare Clerk's Transcript
  • Claim of Right to Possession and Notice of Hearing

Table of Contents

California Tenants' Rights: Your Legal Companion

  • Tenant Rights and Responsibilities
  • Eviction Defense in California
  • Rent Control
  • Legal Forms, Letters, and Checklists for California Tenants

1. Looking for a Place and Renting It

  • Get Organized and Set Your Rental Priorities
  • Learn About Leases and Rental Agreements
  • Typical Provisions in Leases and Rental Agreements
  • Lease Terms to Watch Out For
  • Holding Deposits and Credit-Check Fees
  • Rental Applications and Credit Reports
  • How Landlords Must Handle Your Credit Information
  • Permissible Reasons for Rejecting Tenants
  • How to Check a Place Over
  • How to Bargain for the Best Deal
  • Get All Promises in Writing
  • The Landlord-Tenant Checklist
  • Cosigning Leases
  • Know Your Manager

2. Sharing a Home

  • The Legal Obligations of Roommates to the Landlord
  • Your Responsibility for Rent if You Move Out and Your RoomateStays
  • Having a Friend Move In
  • Victims of Harassment, Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault, Stalking, or Elder or Dependent Adult Abuse
  • Guests

3. All About Rent

  • How Much Can the Landlord Charge?
  • When Is Rent Due?
  • Form of Rent Payment
  • Late Fees and Returned Check Charges
  • Partial Rent Payments
  • Rent Increases
  • Rent Increase Notices
  • Rent Control and Eviction Protection
  • General Types of Rent Control Laws
  • Rent Control Board Hearings
  • What to Do If the Landlord Violates Rent Control Rules

4. Discrimination

  • Forbidden Types of Discrimination
  • What Constitutes Discrimination?
  • Legal Reasons to Discriminate
  • How to Tell If a Landlord Is Discriminating
  • Disability and Requesting Reasonable Accommodations
  • What to Do About Discrimination
  • Sexual Harassment by Landlords or Managers

5. Tenant's Right to Privacy

  • Permissible Reasons to Enter
  • What to Do About a Landlord's Improper Entry
  • Other Types of Invasions of Privacy

6. Major Repairs & Maintenance

  • Your Basic Right to Habitable Premises
  • Your Repair and Maintenance Responsibilities
  • Agreeing to Be Responsible for Repairs
  • How to Get Action From Your Landlord: The Light Touch
  • What to Do If the Landlord Won't Make Repairs

7. Minor Repairs & Maintenance

  • Minor Repairs: What Are They?
  • The Landlord's Responsibilities
  • Agreeing to Do Maintenance
  • Getting the Landlord to Make Minor Repairs
  • Making Minor Repairs Yourself

8. Improvements, Alterations, & Satellite Dishes

  • Improvements That Become Part of the Property
  • Improving Your Rental Without Enriching Your Landlord
  • Cable TV Access
  • Satellite Dishes and Other Antennas

9.  Injuries on the Premises

  • What to Do If You're Injured
  • Is the Landlord Liable?
  • If You're at Fault, Too
  • How Much Money You're Entitled To

10. Environmental Hazards

  • Duty to Disclose Presence of Environmental Hazards
  • Asbestos
  • Lead
  • Radon
  • Carbon Monoxide
  • Mold
  • Bedbugs

11. Crime on the Premises

  • The Landlord's Basic Duty to Keep You Safe
  • Problems With Other Tenants
  • Illegal Activity on the Property and Nearby
  • Getting Results From the Landlord
  • Protecting Yourself

12. Breaking a Lease, Subleasing, and Other Leasing Problems

  • What Happens When the Lease Runs Out
  • Subleases and Assignments
  • Subleasing and Returning Later
  • How to Break a Lease
  • Belongings You Leave Behind

13. Security Deposits and Last Month's Rent

  • Amount of Deposit
  • Nonrefundable Deposits
  • What the Deposits May Be Used For
  • Landlord's Duty to Return Deposits
  • Effect of Sale of Premises on Security Deposits
  • Effect of Foreclosure on Security Deposits
  • May the Landlord Increase the Security Deposit?
  • Avoiding Deposit Problems
  • When the Landlord Won't Return Your Deposit
  • Rent Withholding as a Way to Get Deposits Back in Advance
  • Interest on Security Deposits
  • Last Month's Rent
  • When Your Landlord Demands More Money

14. Overview of Evictions and Tenancy Terminations

  • Illegal Self-Help Evictions
  • Overview of Eviction Procedure
  • Termination of Tenancy
  • Notice to End a Fixed-Term Lease
  • The Three-Day Notice Because of Nonpayment of Rent or Other Tenant Violation
  • The 30-, 60-, or 90-Day Notice to Terminate a Month-to-Month Tenancy
  • Your Options After a Three-Day or 30-, 60-, or 90-Day Notice Is Served
  • Stopping an Eviction by Filing for Bankruptcy
  • Your Rights If Your Building is Foreclosed Upon

15. The Eviction Lawsuit

  • Key Eviction Rule
  • Where Eviction Lawsuits Are Filed
  • The Complaint and Summons
  • What If a Tenant Is Not Named in the Complaint?
  • The Motion to Quash
  • The Demurrer
  • The Answer
  • The Trial
  • Setting Aside a Default Judgment
  • Discovery: Learning About the Landlord's Case
  • Negotiating a Settlement
  • Summary Judgment
  • The Judgment
  • Stopping an Eviction
  • Postponing an Eviction
  • Appeal From an Eviction
  • After the Lawsuit - Eviction by the Sheriff or Marshal

16. Renters' Insurance

17. Condominium Conversion

  • Legal Protection for Tenants
  • Changing the Law

18. Lawyers, Legal Research, and Mediation

  • Lawyers
  • Typing Services and Unlawful Detainer Assistants
  • Legal Research
  • Mediation


Appendixes

A. Rent Control Chart

  • Reading Your Rent Control Ordinance
  • Finding Municipal Codes and Rent Control Ordinances Online
  • Rent Control Rules by California City

B. How to Use the Interactive Forms on the Nolo Website

  • Editing RTFs
  • List of Forms Available on the Nolo Website
  • Using California Judicial Council Government Forms

C . Forms

  • Landlord-Tenant Checklist
  • Fixed-Term Residential Lease
  • Month-to-Month Residential Rental Agreement
  • Notice to Repair
  • Notice of Rent Withholding
  • Agreement Regarding Tenant Alterations to Rental Unit
  • Request to Waive Court Fees* (a Judicial Council form)
  • Order on Court Fee Waiver (Superior Court)* (a Judicial Council form)
  • Prejudgment Claim of Right to Possession* (a Judicial Council form)
  • Blank Numbered Legal Paper
  • Blank Numbered Legal Paper With Superior Court Heading
  • Proof of Service by First-Class Mail - Civil (a Judicial Council form)
  • Attachment to Proof of Service by First-Class Mail - Civil (Persons Served)   (a Judicial Council form)
  • Demurrer
  • Points and Authorities in Support of Demurrer
  • Notice of Hearing on Demurrer
  • Request for Judicial Notice
  • Answer—Unlawful Detainer* (a Judicial Council form)
  • Attachment
  • Request to Inspect and for Production of Documents
  • Form Interrogatories—Unlawful Detainer* (a Judicial Council form)
  • Settlement Agreement
  • Demand for Jury Trial
  • Application and Declaration for Relief From Eviction
  • Notice of Motion and Points and Authorities for Relief From Eviction
  • Order Granting Relief From Eviction
  • Application and Declaration for Stay of Eviction
  • Order Granting Stay of Eviction
  • Notice of Appeal and Notice to Prepare Clerk's Transcript
  • Claim of Right to Possession and Notice of Hearing* (a Judicial Council form)


Index

Chapter 7
Minor Repairs & Maintenance

Ask a group of tenants which rental problem is most annoying, and chances are you’d hear, “Repairs!” Most wouldn’t be referring to major problems that make a unit unlivable. What really bugs tenants are the day-to-day but nonetheless important problems: leaky faucets, malfunctioning appliances, security devices that don’t work, worn carpets, noisy heaters, hot water heaters that produce a pathetic quantity of tepid water, and dozens of other frustrating breakdowns.

Unfortunately, if your landlord refuses to attend to minor repairs, you don’t have much legal clout. You can’t withhold rent, move out, or use most of the other “big stick” legal weapons discussed in Chapter 6. Even so, there are several proven strategies for getting results.

Minor Repairs: What Are They?

If a landlord balks at making repairs, your first step is to decide whether the problem is major (affecting the habitability of your rental unit) or minor. This distinction is necessary because you have different legal options depending on your conclusion.

Minor repair and maintenance includes:

small plumbing jobs, like replacing washers and cleaning drains

system upkeep, like changing heating filters

structural upkeep, like replacing excessively worn flooring

small repair jobs like fixing broken light fixtures or replacing the grout around bathtub tile, and

routine repairs to and maintenance of common areas, such as pools, spas, and laundry rooms.

Don’t assume that inexpensive repairs are always minor repairs. Sometimes an extremely important repair costs very little. For example, if the only thing between you and a heated apartment is the replacement of a $45 furnace part, like a thermostat, the repair is “major” because an unheated dwelling is uninhabitable, even though the repair cost is insig­nificant. And because this is true, if the landlord didn’t replace the part promptly, you would probably be entitled to withhold rent or use one of the other “big stick” strategies discussed in Chapter 6. By contrast, replacing the living room carpet, which is worn but not a hazard, will be very expensive, but will be considered a minor repair if the consequence of not replacing it is less than an unfit dwelling.

Most often, minor repairs are the landlord’s responsibility. But landlords are not required to keep the premises looking just like new—ordinary wear and tear does not have to be repaired during your tenancy. (When you move out, however, the cost of dealing with ordinary wear and tear will fall on the landlord and cannot come out of your security deposit.)

The Landlord’s Responsibilities

Not every minor problem is your landlord’s legal responsibility. If you or one of your guests caused it, carelessly or intentionally, you are responsible for repairing it—or, if your lease or rental agreement prohibits you from doing so, for paying the landlord to do it. But if you had nothing to do with the repair problem and it’s not a cosmetic issue, chances go way up that your landlord is responsible, for one of the following reasons:

A state or local building code requires that the landlord keep the damaged item (for example, a kitchen sink) in good repair.

A lease or rental agreement provision or advertisement describes or lists particular items, such as hot tubs, trash compactors, and air conditioners. By implication, this makes the landlord responsible for maintaining or repairing them.

The landlord made explicit promises when showing you the unit—for example, regarding the security or air-conditioning system.

The landlord has assumed the obligation to maintain a particular feature, such as a whirlpool bathtub, because the landlord has fixed or maintained it in the past.

Each of these reasons is discussed below. If you’re not sure whether a minor repair or maintenance problem is the landlord’s responsibility, scan the discussion to find out.

 

Common Misconceptions About Routine Maintenance

Many tenants (and landlords) mistakenly think that every time a rental unit turns over, or a certain number of years have passed, the landlord must paint or clean drapes and carpets, or do some other kind of refurbishing. Unfortunately for tenants, the law almost never mandates cosmetic changes—even badly needed ones. Here are some common misconceptions:

Paint. California landlords are not required to repaint at specified times. Unless the paint creates a habitability problem—for example, it’s so thick around a window that the window can’t be opened, or flaking lead-based paint poses obvious health risks—the landlord can just let it go. (Lead-based paint creates so many potential problems that we discuss it separately in Chapter 10.)

Drapes and carpets. So long as drapes and carpets are not so damp or full of mildew as to amount to a health hazard, and so long as carpets don’t have dangerous holes that could cause someone to trip and fall, your landlord isn’t legally required to replace them.

Windows. You’re responsible for fixing (or paying to fix) a broken window that you or your guest intentionally or carelessly broke. If a burglar, vandal, or neighborhood child breaks a window, however, the landlord is usually legally responsible for the repair. Broken windows can sometimes be a habitability problem; see Chapter 6.

Rekeying. Unfortunately, landlords are not legally required to change the locks for new tenants. However, if you tell a landlord in writing that you are worried about renting a unit secured by locks for which previous tenants (and perhaps their friends) have keys, most landlords rekey the locks. (If the landlord knows of your concern but does not respond, and you are attacked or your place is burglarized by someone using an old key, the chances of the landlord being held liable in a lawsuit go way up. (See Chapter 13.) California landlords must, however, at least provide door and window locks. (CC § 1941.1). Chapter 11 gives you the details.

 

Building Codes

California state law (and some city ordinances) covers structural requirements, such as roofs, flooring, windows, and essential services such as hot water and heat. If your repair problem is also a violation of the building code, you may be facing a habitability problem, as discussed in Chapter 6. But building codes often cover other, less essential details as well. For example, state code requires a minimum number of electrical outlets per room. When a room has too few outlets, it’s inconvenient, but probably not unsafe or unhealthy. Likewise, the fact that you may have a faucet that drips probably does not render the dwelling unfit, but the landlord is still legally required to fix the problem.

Promises in the Lease or Rental Agreement

When it comes to legal responsibility for repairs, your own lease or rental agreement is often just as important (or more so) than building codes or state laws. If items such as drapes, washing machines, swim­ming pools, saunas, parking places, intercoms, or dishwashers come with the rental, then your landlord must continue to provide these amenities and maintain them in good working order. The only exception would be if you agreed in writing to take care of these items when you moved in.

Promises in Ads

If an advertisement for your unit described or listed a feature, such as a cable TV hookup, that significantly affected your decision to move into the particular rental unit, you have the right to hold the landlord to these promises. Even if your written rental agreement says nothing about appliances, if the landlord’s ad listed a dishwasher, clothes washer and dryer, garbage disposal, microwave oven, security gates, and Jacuzzi, you have a right to expect that all of them will be repaired by the landlord if they break through no fault of yours.

Example: Tina sees Joel’s ad for an apartment, which says “heated swimming pool.” After Tina moves in, Joel stops heating the pool regularly because his utility costs have risen. Joel has violated his promise to keep the pool heated.

The promise doesn’t have to be in words.

Example: Tom’s real estate agent showed him a glossy color photo of an available apartment, which featured a smiling resident using an intercom to welcome a guest. The apartment Tom rented did not have a working intercom, and he complained to the management, arguing that the advertisement implied that all units were so equipped. The landlord realized that he would have to fix the intercom.

Promises Made Before You Rented the Unit

It’s a rare landlord or manager who refrains from even the slightest bit of puffing when showing a rental to a prospective tenant. You’re quite likely to hear rosy plans for amenities or services that haven’t yet materialized (“We plan to redo this kitchen—you’ll love the snappy way that trash compactor will work!”). Whenever you hear promises like these, you would be wise to get them in writing, as part of (or attached to) your lease or rental agreement or, at the very least, in a prompt letter of understanding that cannot be repudiated later.

If this advice is coming to you now a bit late, and you don’t in fact have anything in writing, don’t give up hope. The oral promise is valid and enforceable—it’s just a little harder to prove that it was made. If the promised trash compactor never appears, it’s your word against the landlord’s unless you have witnesses to the conversation. You’ll be in a stronger position, proof-wise, if the promised feature is present in your unit but just doesn’t work or breaks down after you move in, as explained just below.

Example: When Joel’s rental agent shows Tom around the building, she goes out of her way to show off the laundry room, saying, “Here’s the laundry room—we have two machines now, but will be adding two more soon.” Tom rents the apart­ment. Two months go by and Joel still hasn’t added the new machines. Joel has violated his promise to equip the laundry room with four machines.

 

Tip

It is usually a good idea to have oral agreements and promises in writing. One way to do this is to write a simple confirmation letter or email. Something like: “Dear Mr. Lord, It was a pleasure talking with you on the telephone this afternoon. During that conversation you agreed to install a washer/dryer in the laundry room before the end of next month. I appreciate your attention to this matter.”

Implied Promises

Suppose your rental agreement doesn’t mention a garbage disposal, and neither does any ad you saw before moving in. And, in fairness, you can’t remember your landlord ever pointing it out when showing you the unit. But there is a garbage disposal, and it was working when you moved in. Now the garbage disposal is broken and, despite repeated requests, your landlord hasn’t fixed it. Do you have a legal leg to stand on in demanding that your landlord make this minor repair? Yes. Many courts will hold a landlord legally responsible for maintaining all significant aspects of your rental unit. A garbage disposal is an “electrical fixture” that probably falls under the Civil Code Section 1941.1(a)(5).

If you rent a unit that already has certain features —light fixtures that work, doors that open and close smoothly, faucets that don’t leak, tile that doesn’t fall off the wall—many judges reason that the landlord has made an implied contract to keep them in workable order throughout your tenancy.

Another factor that is evidence of an implied contract is the landlord’s past conduct. A landlord who has consistently fixed or maintained a par­ticular feature of your rental has made an implied obligation to continue doing so.

Example: Tina’s apartment has a built-in dishwasher. When she rented the apartment, neither the lease nor the landlord said anything about the dishwasher or who was responsible for repairing it. The dishwasher has broken down a few times and whenever Tina asked Joel to fix it, he did. By doing so, Joel has established a practice that he—not the tenant—is responsible for repairing the dishwasher.

 

Tip

Check your lease. Landlords who want to avoid responsibility for appliance repairs often insert clauses in their leases or rental agreements stating that the appliances are not maintained by the landlord.

 

Tip

Using the Landlord-Tenant Checklist at the start of your tenancy will give you a record of appliances and features—and their condition. If something needs repairs, you’ll be able to use the Checklist as proof of its original condition. (See Chapter 1 for instructions on using the checklist.)

Agreeing to Do Maintenance

Leases and rental agreements usually include a general statement that you are responsible for keeping your rental unit clean, safe, and in good condition, and for reimbursing your landlord for the cost of repairing damage you cause, as explained at length in Chapter 6. Your lease or rental agreement will probably also say that you can’t make alterations or repairs, such as painting the walls, installing bookcases, or fixing electrical problems, without your landlord’s permission (see Chapter 8).

Landlords who are tired of maintenance and repair jobs may use the lease, rental agreement, or separate contract to give these responsibilities to a tenant. Especially if you rent a single-family home or duplex, you may be asked to agree to mow the lawn, trim the bushes, and do minor plumbing jobs and painting.

Commonly, a landlord proposes a rent reduction in exchange for some work. Or the landlord may offer other perks (a parking space, for example), or will offer an amenity if the tenant will perform the maintenance—for example, a hot tub in exchange for your promise to clean it.

Although usually legal, these arrangements often lead to dissatisfaction—typically, the landlord feels that the tenant has neglected certain tasks, or the tenant feels that there is too much work. If the dispute boils over, the landlord tries to evict the tenant.

When you take on repair duties, here’s how to protect yourself and avoid disputes:

Sign a separate agreement from your rental agreement or lease. This is especially important if you plan to do considerable work for your landlord on a continuing basis, such as keeping hallways, elevators, or a laundry room clean, or maintaining the landscaping. Tenants who are also building managers are in this position. Ask your landlord to pay you for your work, rather than give you a rent reduction. That way, if the landlord claims that the job is not done right, the worst that can happen is that you may be fired but your tenancy should not be affected. But if your maintenance duties are tied to a rent reduction and things go wrong, you and the landlord will have to amend the lease or rental agreement in order to reestablish the original rent. And if the maintenance jobs are spelled out in a lease clause, the landlord also has the option of terminating the lease on the grounds that your poor performance constitutes a breach of the lease. Be forewarned, however, that many landlords will not want to enter into an employer-employee relationship with you, because becoming an employer has its own set of complications.

Clearly write out your responsibilities and the landlord’s expectations. List your tasks and the frequency with which your landlord expects them to be done. Weekly tasks might include, for example, cleaning the laundry room, sweeping and wet mopping the lobby, and mowing the grass between April 1 and November 1.

Make sure the agreement is fair. Ideally, your landlord will pay you a fair hourly rate. If your only choice is a rent reduction, make sure the trade-off is equitable. If you’re getting only a $100 rent reduction for work that would cost the landlord $400 if done by a cleaning service, you’re being ripped off.

Discuss problems with the landlord and try to work out a mutually satisfactory agreement. If the landlord has complained about your work, maybe it’s because the owner underestimated what’s involved in cleaning the hallways and grounds. Your landlord may be willing to pay you more for better results or shorten your list of jobs. If not, cancel the arrangement.

 

Watch Out for Illegal Retaliation

Landlords who delegate some tasks are not relieved of all repair and maintenance responsibilities. For example, if you and your landlord agree that you will do gardening work in exchange for a rent reduction, and the landlord feels that you are not doing a proper job, the landlord cannot respond by shutting off your water.

 

 

CAUTION

Don’t perform repairs involving hazardous materials. Any repair involving old paint or insulation (opening up a ceiling or wall cavity, for example) may expose you or others to dangerous levels of toxic materials. For example, sanding a surface for a seemingly innocuous paint job may actually create lead-based paint dust; the quick installation of a smoke alarm could involve disturbing an asbestos-filled ceiling. (See Chapter 10 for more information on environmental hazards.)

Getting the Landlord to Make Minor Repairs

By now you should have a pretty good idea as to whether your landlord is legally responsible for fixing the particular minor problem that is bedeviling you. Your next job is to get the landlord to do it. First, try to get the landlord to cooperate. If you can’t, it may be time to take a more demanding approach.

Appealing to Your Landlord

Chances are you have already asked your landlord or manager to make repairs, only to be put off, ignored, or even told to forget it. Your next step is to write a formal demand letter—or, if you have already done it, a second one.

Before you pick up your pen or turn on your computer, take a minute to think about what words will most likely get action. Begin by remembering your landlord’s overriding business concerns: to make money, avoid hassles with tenants, and stay out of legal hot water. A request that zeroes in on these issues will likely get the job done.

How to Write a Persuasive Repair Request

Whether this is your first or second formal demand letter, frame your repair request along one or more of the following lines, if possible:

It’s a small problem now, but has the potential to be a very big deal. A bathtub faucet that drips badly may be simply annoying now, but devastating later if the washer gives out while you’re not home, flooding the tub and ruining the floor and downstairs neighbor’s ceiling. When you ask that the faucet be repaired, point out the risk of letting things go.

There is a potential for injury. Landlords hate to be sued. If a potential injury-causing problem is brought to their attention, it’s likely that their fear of lawsuits will overcome their lethargy, and you’ll finally get results. Say, for instance, you have asked your land-lord to repair the electrical outlet in your kitchen so that you can use your toaster. If you’ve received no response, try again with a different pitch: Point out that, on occasion, you have observed sparks flying from the wall, and a short in the wiring could cause an injury or fire.

There is a security problem that imperils your safety. Landlords are increasingly aware that they can also be sued for criminal assaults against tenants if the premises aren’t reasonably secure. (Chapter 11 discusses this topic in detail.) If you can figure out a way to emphasize the security risks of not fixing a problem—for example, a burned-out light­bulb in the garage or a door that doesn’t always latch properly—you may motivate the landlord to act promptly.

The problem affects other tenants. If you can point to a disaster-waiting-to-happen that affects more than one tenant, you will greatly increase your chances of some action. For example, accumulated oil puddles in the garage threaten the safety of all tenants and guests, not just you. Faced with the possibility of a small army of potential plaintiffs, each accompanied by an eager attorney, even the most slothful landlord may spring into action.

You’re willing to try to fix it, but may make the problem worse. Finally, you might try offering to fix the problem yourself in a way that is likely to elicit a quick “No thanks, I’ll call my contractor right away!” This is a bit risky, since your bluff might be called, but even the most dense landlord will think twice when you offer to make an electrical repair with a chisel and masking tape.

See the sample letter below for more ideas on writing a persuasive repair request.

Sample Letter Asking for Minor Repairs

 

90 Willow Run, Apartment 3A
Morgantown, California 00000

February 28, 20xx

Mr. Lee Sloan
37 Main Street, Suite 100
Morgantown, California 00000

Dear Mr. Sloan:

I would appreciate it if you could schedule an appointment with me to look at three problems in my apartment that have come up recently.

First, the kitchen sink faucet is dripping, and it’s getting worse. I’m concerned that a plate or dish towel might stop up the drain, leading to an overflow. At any rate, the water bill is yours, and I’m sure that you don’t want to pay for wasted water.

I’ve also been having trouble opening the sliding doors on the bedroom closet. The track appears to be coming away from the wall, and the doors wobble and look like they might fall into the room when I open and close the closet.

Finally, it would really be great if you would give some thought to repainting the interior hallways. They looked clean when I moved in a year ago, but now are pretty grimy. I’ve spoken with the tenants in four of the other six units and they, too, would appreciate a return to your standards of old.

Thanks very much for thinking about my requests.

 

A written demand for repair or maintenance lets your landlord know that you are serious about the issue and are not content to just let it go. In addition, if your dispute ends up in small claims court, the demand letter can usually be introduced as evidence. Like this sample letter, your demand letter should:

be neatly typed and use businesslike language.

concisely and accurately state the important facts (this is important in case your letter ends up before a judge, who will need to be educated about the situation).

be polite and nonpersonal. Obviously, a personal attack on your landlord may trigger an equally emotional response. Because you are appealing to the landlord’s business interests, you want to encourage the landlord to evaluate the issue soberly, not out of anger.

state exactly what you want—a new paint job, for example.

Always keep a copy of the letter or email for your files, and hand-deliver the letter or send it “return receipt requested.”

Your Options If the Landlord Refuses to Make a Minor Repair

If your letter has not convinced your landlord to fix this minor issue and you do not believe that further coaxing will work, it’s time to consider other options. They are:

seek mediation or arbitration for “reduction in services”

report code violations to a building inspector

make the repairs yourself—or using a qualified person

repair it yourself and deduct the cost of the repair from rent, or

sue in small claims court.

Few, if any, minor repair problems warrant rent withholding because your tenancy is at risk when habitability issues are not substantial. In weighing these options, consider the nature of the repair (not all repairs warrant calling the building inspector or repairing and deducting), the cost of fixing it yourself and the chances of you getting reimbursed, and the hassle to you. Some may feel that the easiest way to deal with it is to fix the problem themselves and absorb the cost. Others may feel that it “sets a bad precedent” to pay for what the landlord should be responsible for.

As we’ve explained previously, it is unlawful for a landlord to retaliate (get back at you) for exercising your lawful rights. (CC § 1942.5.) However, be sure you are on solid ground before asserting your rights. For instance, does the repair address a habitability concern described in Civil Code Section 1941.1 or Health and Safety Code Section 17920.3? Are you charging a fair amount for the repair, and did you give your landlord reasonable notice?

Propose Mediation or File a Petition for Arbitration for Reduction in Services

Many community organizations and even some courts offer mediation services. These services try to get parties together to work on a mutually agreeable solution to a problem, and most of these services have experience with landlord/tenant issues. Participation in mediation is totally voluntary, however, and if your landlord does not want to participate, the service will be of little use.

As stated in the previous chapter, many jurisdictions with rent control allow tenants to petition for a reduction in rent due to a reduction in the services provided. If you live in such a city with rent control, you should contact your rent board to see how they can help.

Using either of these remedies involves little or no risk.

Reporting Code Violations

If appealing to your landlord’s business sensibilities doesn’t work, other strategies are available to pry minor repairs out of your landlord.

If the problem you want fixed constitutes a code violation, such as inadequate electrical outlets or low water pressure, you should find an ally in the building or housing agency in charge of enforcing the code. (Chapter 6 explains how to find and what to expect from these local agencies.) Whether you’ll get any action out of the agency will depend on the seriousness of the violation, the workload of the agency, and its ability to enforce its compliance orders. Because by definition your problem is minor, don’t expect lots of help if code enforcement officials are already overworked.

Making Repairs Yourself—Or Using a Qualified Repairperson

If your landlord has refused to make a requested repair, and it’s the type of repair you think he should make, you may decide to go ahead and make the repair yourself (or use a qualified person). After the repair, you have three options:

If the repair is for a condition listed in Civil Code Section 1941.1, you may choose to deduct the cost from your rent.

You may also decide to seek reimbursement in small claims court—but before you do this, you must write a letter to your landlord, requesting the reimbursement.

You may want to just avoid the hassle and absorb the cost yourself.

The first step is to determine whether the landlord is responsible for the repair or you are. In either event, you will want to notify the landlord of the problem and that you intend to fix the problem (or have a qualified person fix it). If you decide to do it yourself, be sure it’s something you are capable of doing competently. If not, find a qualified person to do the job.

Be careful if the landlord objects to your taking care of the repair yourself or does not give you permission to do it. Depending on the nature of the repair, you could be violating your lease agreement if it has a provision that says that the tenant cannot make “repairs, alterations or improvements” to the premises (sometimes these clauses add, “without the landlord’s consent”). (Improvements and alterations are covered in the following chapter.) Note, however, if the repair is of a condition listed in Civil Code Section 1941.1, you have a legal right to repair the problem and deduct the cost from your rent, regardless of the presence of such a lease clause (discussed below).

If you have gone ahead with the repair, consider the choices outlined above.

Repair Yourself, Deduct the Cost of Repair from Your Rent

One option is to deduct the cost of the repair from your rent. Remember, under Civil Code Section 1942, you can only deduct up to a month’s rent, two times in any 12-month period. Details of how to take advantage of this are in Chapter 6, “Major Repairs & Maintenance.” Civil Code Section 1941.1 lists the types of repairs that are allowed before rent can be deducted.

If you repair and deduct, the landlord may give you a three-day notice to pay rent or quit. If the repair was a type described in Civil Code Section 1941.1, you should be able to successfully fight an eviction. You might also consider paying the rent within the three days to avoid eviction, then sue in small claims court.

Sue in Small Claims Court

Another option is to to sue in small claims court. But before you do, write a second demand letter. Like the first letter (see the sample above), your second letter should describe the problems and alert the landlord to the negative consequences (to the landlord, not just to you) that may follow if repairs aren’t made. In addition, state that you intend to sue if you don’t get results. This may get the landlord’s attention and save you a trip to the courthouse.

Example: Chris Jensen wrote to her landlord on February 28, requesting repairs as shown in the sample letter above. She got no reply. Ten days later, she sent a second letter that summarized the first and concluded with this paragraph:

“If you are unable to attend to these repairs, I’ll need to call in a handyman to repair the faucet and doors, and I will seek reimbursement from you in small claims court if necessary. As for the deterioration of the paint, I believe I am entitled to a reduction in rent, which I will also seek in small claims court. Of course, I sincerely hope that this will not be necessary.”

If the second letter doesn’t produce results, it’s time to proceed with the repair. Most small claims courts prefer (or require) that before filing, the person making the claim first notify the defendant in writing of the exact amount owed and for what, and give them a reasonable time to respond. If you have not yet done this, you will need to send one more letter informing the landlord of the amount you are claiming and the reasons for your demand. If you get no results, then it’s time to file the small claims court action. You won’t need a lawyer (in fact, in California you can’t bring a lawyer to small claims court). Just go to the court and ask for the forms you need to sue someone. To find your court, search online for your county’s small claims court. (You may find some of the forms you need online.) In small claims court, you can’t get an order from the judge directing your landlord to paint, fix the dishwasher, or repair the intercom. You may, however, be compensated in dollars for living in a rental unit with repair problems. Here’s how it works.

When you file your small claims court suit, you’ll ask for an amount that reflects the difference between your rent and the value of the unit with repair problems. For example, if you’re living with a broken air conditioner, and know that apartments without air conditioners rent for $100 less per month, use that figure (multiplied by the number of months or parts thereof that the unit’s been ­broken) as your measure of damages. In court, your argument will be that you are not getting the benefit of what you’re paying rent for—for example, a functioning dishwasher, presentable paint, or a working air conditioner. If you paid for a repair, include that in the same lawsuit.

 

CAUTION

Don’t stop paying rent. Although fairness dictates that if your rental unit is full of repair problems you ought to pay less rent, it’s a mistake to pay your landlord less than the full monthly rent. Rent withholding, as discussed in Chapter 6, is legally appropriate only for major repairs. If you withhold even a portion of the rent because of a minor repair problem, you risk eviction for nonpayment of rent.

Your goal in small claims court is to convince the judge that these problems really make your rental unit worth less money. Use common sense—don’t go running to court for small things. A small claims court judge is not going to adjust your rent because a little grout is missing from your bathroom tile. But if your dishwasher is broken, three faucets leak noisily, and the bathroom door won’t close, your chances of winning go way up. You’ll need to show the judge that:

there are several minor defects, not just an isolated one, and

you’ve given the landlord plenty of time and notice to fix the problems.

Be sure to bring evidence. Winning in small claims court depends more on what you drag into court with you than on what you say. Examples of key evidence include:

copies of letters you’ve written asking for repairs

your written notes on your landlord’s response to your repair requests, including the number of times they were ignored or promised repairs didn’t materialize

witnesses—a family member, for example, who can describe the inoperable air conditioner

photographs—your pictures of the cracked, flaking plaster, for example

a copy of the local building or housing code, if the problem is covered there

your lease or rental agreement, if it lists any of the items that need repair

your lease or rental agreement, if it prohibits you from making repairs yourself

a copy of the Landlord-Tenant Checklist, which you should have completed when you moved in and which is signed by you and the landlord, showing that the problem did not exist at the start of your tenancy, and

ads, brochures, or “For Rent” signs describing features of your rental that are missing or malfunctioning.

Example: Judy signed a one-year lease for a studio apartment at $750 a month. When she moved in, the place was in good shape. But six months into her tenancy, the condition of the apartment began to deteriorate. A water leak from the roof stained and buckled several areas of the hardwood floors; the kitchen cabinets, which were apparently badly made, warped, and would not shut; the dishwasher became so noisy the neighbor banged on the wall when it was in use; the soap dish fell off the bathroom wall; and the white entryway rug started to fall apart. Judy asked her landlord to attend to these problems and followed up with several written demand letters. Two months after her original request, Judy wrote a final demand letter.

When the landlord still did nothing, Judy filed suit in small claims court, asking the judge to award her damages (money) representing the difference between her rent and the value of the deteriorated apartment. After considering Judy’s evidence, including copies of her demand letter, photographs of the defects, and the testimony of her neighbor, the judge agreed with Judy. The judge figured that the deteriorated apartment would have rented for $150 less a month, and ordered the landlord to pay Judy $450 to make up for the three months she had lived with the defects. Judy’s landlord was quick to make repairs after learning this expensive lesson in court.

Resource

Everybody’s Guide to Small Claims Court in California, by Ralph Warner (Nolo), has all the details you need to file a small claims court lawsuit. See www.nolo.com for a sample chapter and table of contents for this book.

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