California Tenant Rights to Withhold Rent or “Repair and Deduct”

When used properly, rent withholding and the “repair and deduct” remedy are valid responses to a landlord’s failure to make repairs.

By , Attorney

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 might have the legal right to:

Here's what you need to know if you're a California tenant hoping to withhold rent or have your landlord reimburse you for repairs you've made.

California Tenants Have the Right to a Livable Rental

When a California landlord puts a rental on the market, it must meet certain habitability standards—meaning that the unit must be safe and livable. The landlord is required to ensure that the rental remains habitable throughout the tenancy. At minimum every California rental must:

  • have effective waterproofing and weather protection of roof and exterior walls
  • have intact (unbroken) windows and doors
  • have functioning plumbing, heating, and electrical systems, including hot and cold running water and a working toilet and kitchen sink
  • be clean and sanitary (free of debris, filth, rubbish, garbage, rodents, and vermin)
  • include adequate trash receptacles
  • have well-maintained floors, stairways, and railings
  • be secured by deadbolt locks on certain doors and windows
  • not contain lead paint hazards, and
  • be free of 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.

(Cal. Civ. Code §§ 1941.1, 1941.3 (2022).)

If you're looking for a laundry list of what the law considers substandard housing in California, check out Health and Safety Code section 17920.3—it includes things such as lack of a kitchen sink, dampness in habitable rooms, loose plaster, and lack of connection to a sewage disposal system.

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 waterproofing. In most urban areas of California, local codes are more thorough than the state's general housing law.

Your local building or housing authority can help you figure out the exact standards your rental must meet. To find yours, call your mayor of city manager's office or check your city's or county's website.

What to Do When Your Landlord Won't Make Repairs

When something at your rental needs repair, the best approach is to put your repair request in writing—even if you've already spoken with your landlord about it. Be sure to describe the problem in detail, how it's affecting you, and what you think needs to be done. If something poses a health or safety threat, say so. You can use Nolo's Tenant's Notice of Needed Repairs to get started.

Keep notes of all your repair requests to and communications with 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.

If your landlord ignores your persistent and businesslike requests for repairs, you have options. Two of the most effective remedies for tenants in California are "repair and deduct" and—as a last resort—rent withholding.

How to Make Repairs and Deduct the Cost ("Repair and Deduct") in California

A powerful legal remedy when your landlord won't 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 repair person 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).

Here's what to do if you decide to use the repair and deduct remedy:

  • Notify your landlord in writing of the problem.
  • Allow the landlord a reasonable amount of time (usually 30 days) to fix the problem.
  • Collect evidence, such as pictures and video, of the problem that's causing you to repair and deduct.
  • Gather bids or collect pricing information—pay attention to both cost and quality of the work, and be sure to select a licensed professional for tasks that require a license.
  • Attach copies of the bills or invoices—along with proof that you've paid them—to your next rent payment, along with a letter explaining why you're paying only part of your rent.

It's important to note that you shouldn't reduce the rent until you've actually done the work and paid for it.

(Cal. Civ. Code §§ 1942, 1942.5 (2022).)

How and When Tenants Can Withhold Rent in California

An even bigger "stick" to get your landlord to make repairs in California is to withhold rent. This means that you stop paying rent to the landlord until the repairs are made. Withholding rent is risky, though: Failing to pay rent is grounds for your landlord to file an eviction lawsuit. If this happens and the judge decides that you weren't justified in withholding rent, you will be evicted.

Before you decide to take action, be sure you can answer "yes" to each of the following questions:

  • Is the problem serious—is it a habitability problem because it creates a risk to health or safety?
  • Did someone other than you or a guest cause the problem?
  • Did you notify the landlord about the problem?
  • Did you give the landlord a reasonable amount of time (usually 30 days) to fix the problem and did the landlord fail to do so?
  • Have you consulted with a lawyer or other person knowledgeable about tenants' rights to confirm that you're justified in withholding rent?
  • Have you considered and ruled out using the repair and deduct option discussed above?
  • Are you willing to risk eviction if the judge decides you shouldn't have withheld rent?
  • If you move out, can you find a comparable or better rental?

If you decide to withhold rent, check your city's laws to find out if you need to put the rent you're withholding into an escrow account. Even if there's no requirement, it's a good idea to set aside the money that you'd otherwise be paying. This demonstrates that you're not withholding rent for your own financial benefit and ensures that you don't spend the money.

When you decide to withhold rent, follow these steps:

  1. Set aside the amount you're withholding and don't spend it until the matter is resolved.
  2. Notify your landlord in writing of your intent to withhold the rent.
  3. Collect evidence, such as photos and videos, of the issue that's prompting you to withhold rent.
  4. Repeat your request for repairs, and give the landlord one last (short but fair) deadline to remedy the situation.

Unless you've had to move out because of the repair problem, you're not off the hook completely for rent. You will still owe your landlord the reasonable rental value of the unit in its unrepaired state. You can negotiate this reduced rent with your landlord. Or, if you go to court on the matter, the judge will determine how much you will have to pay your landlord.

How to Get Help

Using either of these remedies isn't a step to take lightly. Although landlords generally can't retaliate against tenants who exercise their legal rights, you might be at risk of eviction if you misuse either of these remedies. To learn more, consider reading California Tenants' Rights: It 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.

You can also check out Nolo's extensive list of legal resources for tenants, or find out how more about how to get legal aid and pro bono legal assistance.

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