California Lease and Rental Agreement Laws: Tenant Rights

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California's landlord-tenant laws set out the rights and responsibilities of tenants, as well as landlords, in the state. Whether signing a lease or a month-to-month rental agreement, tenants are entitled to the quiet enjoyment of their dwelling unit. Those that live in rent-control jurisdictions have supplemental protections that limit rent increases and evictions.

Lease Agreement vs. Rental Agreement

Tenants who move into a rental unit have contracted with the landlord before they do so. The tenancy contract might be a written lease that obligates the tenant to stay in the unit for a particular length of time, most often one year. Lease tenants usually have a payment to make every month just like rent except that the landlord cannot increase it during the period of the lease.

The tenancy contract can also be a month-to-month rental agreement. In this type of contract, the tenant is not obligated to stay in the premises for more than one month. The tenant essentially contracts one month at a time. Every month, the tenant pays rent for that month, and the landlord agrees to allow the tenant to stay for that month. The tenant can leave with 30 days' notice, and the landlord can raise the rent with 30 days' notice absent rent-control rules.

Leaseholders and renters have different rights in California when it comes to rent increases and guaranteed terms of tenancy. But both have the same implied covenants under the law, including the covenant of quiet enjoyment and the right to a habitable living unit. And both are protected by California's security deposit laws that limit the total deposit to twice the amount of one month's rent for unfurnished units and three times the rent for furnished units.

Read More: California Lease and Rental Agreement Laws: Landlord Rights

Tenant Rights Under Lease Agreements

A tenant who enters into a lease agreement for a rental unit in California has the legal right to occupy the house or apartment for the entire lease period. Whatever conditions the landlord and tenant agree to in the lease bind both the parties for the whole period.

If the lease is for one year, the tenant can rest assured that she will owe the same monthly amount for the entire lease term, that the landlord cannot evict her without cause and that whatever other tenant rights are written into the lease, she will be able to enjoy them for one year.

Tenant Rights Under Rental Agreements

If the tenant doesn't sign a lease agreeing to live in the property for a certain period of time, she enters the property on a rental agreement. This could be a written agreement that sets out the terms of the tenancy or it can be an oral contract allowing her to live there in exchange for certain rent.

These types of tenancies are called periodic tenancies because rent is paid for some period of time. Most tenants in California pay rent every month and have month-to-month periodic tenancies. That means tenants pay rent at the beginning of a month, "buying" the right to occupy the premises for a month.

Implied Warranty of Habitability

While both a tenant holding a lease and a tenant having a rental contract are bound by the terms of their contracts, there are also extra protections in California. The state landlord-tenant laws imply certain terms into the contract even if the landlord doesn't specifically include them.

One important term implied into every rental agreement in California is the warranty of habitability. This implied covenant requires landlords to provide a safe and habitable unit in exchange for the rent charged. That means that the house or apartment must contain the essential elements that make a unit livable, including heat, water, electricity, decent plumbing, locks and other security, and functioning doors.

In California, rentals, to be legal, must have been issued certificate of occupancy documents by the city. This paperwork states that the unit complies with building codes. If the unit wasn't issued a certificate of occupancy or its equivalent, a landlord cannot accept rent for occupying the premises.

Tenant's Right to Repair and Deductions

If the dwelling unit doesn't meet the requirements to be safe and habitable, the tenant has the right to have the repairs completed and deduct the costs of repair from the next rent or lease payment. For example, if the heater isn't working, and the landlord won't fix it, the tenant can hire a technician to fix the heater or, if necessary, replace the heater with a new one. When the next rent comes due, the tenant can deduct whatever amount she had to pay to remedy the situation.

Implied Covenant of Quiet Enjoyment

Another protection for California tenants that is implied into contracts is called the "right to quiet enjoyment." This tenant protection, like the warranty of habitability, doesn't have to be written into the contract. It is a core right implied by California landlord-tenant law, something that a tenant is entitled to by law in exchange for paying monthly rent.

What is quiet enjoyment? It means that the landlord will not do anything to disturb a tenant from peacefully using the rented space without recurring disruption. The landlord cannot himself unreasonably disturb the tenants or allow other tenants to do so. He is responsible for removing nuisances that keep tenants from quietly enjoying the property.

There is no single behavior that constitutes a breach of this covenant; many different behaviors can qualify, depending on the circumstances. A typical breach might be the landlord or manager entering the dwelling unit too frequently or without appropriate notice, or failing to remove a nuisance on the property.

Tenant Rights Regarding Eviction and Termination

A tenant's rights about termination of tenancy depend on whether the unit is located in a city with a rent-control ordinance. If not, regular landlord-tenant law applies in California, which allows a landlord to end a month-to-month tenancy with a simple 30-day notice. Under these laws, a landlord can terminate a leasehold at the end of the lease by written notice as well. No explanation or justification is required.

However, in rent-controlled jurisdictions, different rules apply. The landlord can terminate the tenancy only for cause. The tenant must have seriously breached a term of the rental contract. For example, failure to pay rent or illegal activities on the premises are usually sufficient to justify a termination of tenancy. If the landlord tries to evict a tenant without good cause, the tenant can sue for wrongful eviction.

Security Deposit Return

The tenant has the right to the return of a security deposit within 21 days after she vacates the rental unit. A landlord can only withhold money from the security deposit if the tenants owe rent, left the apartment damaged in some way or left it dirtier than it was at move-in.

If the landlord withholds security deposit money, he must still return the remainder of the security deposit to the tenant within 21 days from move-out. This must be accompanied by an itemized statement of how much was withheld and why it was withheld.

If the total of the amounts withheld from the return of the security deposit was more than $125, the landlord must also provide to the tenant copies of receipts and invoices backing up the deductions. If the landlord has not yet repaired the damage, he must give the tenants a good faith estimate, then provide invoices and receipts within 14 days of the time they are received.