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.
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:
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.
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.
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:
Here's what to do if you decide to use the repair and deduct remedy:
It's important to note that you shouldn't reduce the rent until you've actually done the work and paid for it.
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:
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:
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.
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.