California Law: Renter's Rights

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Many cities in California are experiencing a very tight rental market with few vacant units and high prices. This situation makes it easy for unscrupulous landlords to take advantage of tenants by demanding fees or nonrefundable deposits, raising rents regularly or evicting tenants to rent the unit out for more money to others. California landlord-tenant laws provide some protections to renters, and these are supplemented in many urban centers with rent control ordinances.

TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)

Renter's rights can vary from city to city so be sure to look up your specific city's landlord tenant laws. The American Apartment Owners Association has a good overview of California rental laws across the state.

California Renter's Right to a Limited Security Deposit

A security deposit is a landlord's hedge against a bad tenant. It is a sum of money that serves as security for the landlord in case the tenants fail to pay rent, take actions that damage the property, move out without proper notice or leave the unit much dirtier than it was when they moved in. In these cases, the landlord can use the security deposit to pay for repairs or damage, or to make up for unpaid rent.

But landlords cannot demand sky-high security deposit amounts. The maximum amount that tenants have to pay as a security deposit is capped by California law at two or three times the amount of a month's rent. If the dwelling is rented unfurnished, the maximum security deposit is twice the amount of a month's rent, if rented furnished, the deposit is three times one month's rent.

It is not possible for a landlord to avoid this cap on security deposit amounts by calling the amount a pet deposit or a last month's rent deposit. All of the deposits, taken together, cannot exceed the statutory cap.

California Renter's Right to a Safe, Decent Unit

Having agreed to rent a property to someone on a particular date, the California landlord must deliver the dwelling unit to the tenant on that date. If anyone is occupying the unit, the landlord has to take all necessary legal action to have them out by the date the new renters take over the unit.

Once the renters move in, they have a right to a safe, habitable unit. The landlord has to maintain the unit to keep it safe. This includes keeping the building and the unit up to code by performing necessary repairs. Utilities like water, heat, plumbing and electricity must be safe and in working order. Landlords must maintain common areas so that they are safe and clean as well.

California Renter's Right to Quiet Enjoyment of the Property

In California, tenants are said to have the right to quiet enjoyment of the rental property. This is called an implied covenant since it exists whether or not the right is expressly written into a renter's agreement. California Civil Code 1927 states, "An agreement to let upon hire binds the letter to secure to the hirer the quiet possession of the thing hired during the term of the hiring, against all persons lawfully claiming the same."

What does this obligation by the landlord to provide the tenant with “quiet enjoyment” mean? It means that the landlord cannot disturb the tenants or let other renters disturb them.

A tenant has the exclusive right to use the property and a reasonable expectation of privacy there. The landlord is permitted to enter without notice only in case of an emergency. If a landlord doesn't allow the tenant the quiet enjoyment of the unit, the tenant can bring suit for damages.

California Renter's Right to Repair and Deduct

A landlord has a duty to maintain a rental unit. If he fails to fix a problem in the rental unit after receiving notice of it, the tenant can get the repairs done and deduct the cost from the next month’s rent.

California permits a tenant to repair and deduct if the issue makes the apartment uninhabitable and was not caused by the tenants or their guests. Examples might include:

  • No water or no hot water.
  • Broken toilets.
  • Unlit or unsafe stairs.
  • Broken doors or windows. 
  • Holes in the floor.
  • A leaking roof or walls. 

A tenant must first contact the landlord, give him notice of the condition and give him a reasonable amount of time to fix it. If the landlord does not respond in a reasonable period, the tenant has the right to get the problem repaired and deduct the cost from the rent. The amount cannot exceed one month's rent and a tenant cannot use this remedy more than once a year.

California Renter's Right Regarding Rent Increases

California state law not does restrict landlords when it comes to setting a rental amount. Under the Civil Code, a landlord can ask any amount at all for a unit, and, if a tenant agrees to pay that amount, the state will not object. This also applies to rent increases in month-to-month tenancies or at the end of a lease. The landlord can increase rent by any amount as long as he gives proper notice to the tenant, usually 30 days.

However, many cities in California have enacted rent control measures to limit rent increases. These rent control ordinances set a percentage limit on how much a landlord can increase the rent of an existing tenant. San Francisco, Berkeley, San Jose and Los Angeles are among the urban areas with rent control in place.

California Renter's Right Regarding Eviction

If a landlord ends a tenancy and tells the renter to leave, it is called an eviction. Generally, California law does not give a tenant the right to stay in a dwelling unit if the rent is month-to-month or the lease has expired. The landlord must give 30 or 60 days written notice to the tenant and, when the time runs, the tenant no longer has a right to live there.

In rent control jurisdictions where landlords cannot raise the rents of current tenants, it is tempting to a landlord to evict a low-paying tenant and rent to a new tenant at a higher rent. That is why many rent control laws also limit evictions to "good cause" evictions. This means that a landlord cannot evict a renter without good cause. Examples of good cause are a tenant's failure to pay rent, using the premises for illegal activities or damaging the property.

Landlords wishing to evict a renter in a rent control jurisdiction must follow very specific rules and procedures. Eviction cannot be based on a desire to rent the unit for more money or as punishment for a tenant using the "repair and deduct" option.

California Renter's Right to Return of Security Deposit

When the tenancy comes to an end, a tenant has the right to the return of the security deposit. It is not permissible for the landlord to classify any deposit as "nonrefundable." However, a landlord can retain part or all of the deposit to cover unpaid rent or the cost to repair damage done by the tenants and their guests. A landlord can also deduct moneys spent on cleaning the unit if it was left dirtier than it was when the tenant moved in.

A California landlord has 21 days from the tenant move-out to refund the deposit. If the landlord withholds part or all of the security deposit, he must give the tenants a written accounting of how much was spent on what. If the amount is more than $125, the landlord must also give the tenant invoices and receipts.

In some rent control jurisdictions, the tenant is entitled to interest on the security deposit. California statutes do not require the landlord to pay interest.

References

About the Author

Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.