California Lease and Rental Agreement Laws: Landlord Rights

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It's human nature. Landlords think tenants have all the rights in California, while tenants see landlords as sitting in the catbird seat. Both landlord and tenant rights and responsibilities are set out in the state's landlord-tenant laws and are supplemented by municipal rent control ordinances.

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

In California, landlords have the right to demand security deposits and receive timely rental payments from the tenants. Landlords also have the right to enter tenant premises, raise the rent and to end lease and rental agreements under certain circumstances. In cities with rental control ordinances, landlords have more restrictions on their ability to raise the rent and evict tenants.

California Leases and Rental Agreements

California's landlord-tenant laws apply to both leases and rental agreements. A lease is a written contract between the landlord and a tenant granting occupancy rights for a set period of time, often one year in the case of a residential lease. Usually, the tenant agrees to pay a set sum each month for the duration of the lease.

With a rental agreement that isn't a lease, the landlord grants occupancy rights on a periodic basis. Usually, this is a month-to-month tenancy, where the tenant pays at the beginning of the month for the right to occupy the unit for that month. Absent rent control, either party can terminate a month-to-month tenancy by written notice to the other party.

Written Vs. Oral Agreements

Must you give the tenant a written agreement for a lease or a month-to-month rental agreement to be valid in California? Under the Statute of Frauds, an agreement for the lease or rental of property does not have to be in writing to be enforceable, unless it is for a period of more than a year. So, a one-year lease doesn't have to be in writing since it is not for a period of longer than a year. Likewise, a month-to-month tenancy agreement doesn't have to be in writing either, since it only covers one month at a time, even though it may extend indefinitely.

On the other hand, legal experts suggest that all rental contracts should be in writing. Writing out the contract and having it signed puts the tenant on notice of what was agreed to, and also makes it easier for the parties to prove the terms of the agreement in court, should that become necessary. A written agreement is also the best way to include certain provisions, such as:

  • Where and when to pay rent.
  • No-smoking rules​.
  • Authorizing the court to order one party to pay the other's attorney's fees if either has to go to court to enforce their rights.
  • No-sublet provision prohibiting subletting or assigning the premises.
  • Damages in case the tenant breaches the lease and abandons the property.
  • Indemnification for personal injury or property damage caused by the tenant.
  • Pet provision stating what types of pets are allowed, if any.
  • Security deposit provision detailing how security deposit money can be applied.
  • Late fees charged for late rent payments.
  • Lease renewal option.

Security Deposit Amount

As a landlord, you are understandably concerned about the possibility of getting back an apartment or home that looks much worse than the one you originally turned over to the tenants. Tenants are usually well-mannered, but bad tenants can do real damage to rental property through their negligent behavior and, occasionally, even deliberately. Having a nice unit returned with holes kicked in the walls, mirrors broken or the kitchen trashed is a landlord's nightmare.

That's why California law allows landlords to demand ​security deposits​ from tenants before they occupy the premises. Security deposits are amounts that the landlord can use to repair any damages caused to the unit or to have dirty units cleaned when the tenants vacate. You can also use security deposit funds to cover unpaid rental amounts like last month's rent if the tenant leaves without giving the required ​30 days' notice​.

How much can you demand as a security deposit under California landlord-tenant law? The ​security deposit cap​ is a multiple of the amount of the monthly rent for the unit. If the rental unit is furnished, you can charge three times the monthly rental amount. If it is unfurnished, the cap is set at twice the rental amount. You must return any unused portion of the security deposit to the tenants within 21 days of move-out, along with an itemized statement of deductions, if any.

Right to Timely Rental Payments

As a landlord, you fulfill your contractual obligations by handing over a clean, habitable rental unit to the new tenant on the first day of the tenancy. Your job is to maintain the rental in that condition during the tenancy. In exchange, you have the right to timely rental payments.

You get to specify in the rental agreement where rent payments are to be made every month, as well as when they are to be made. It is common practice for California landlords to demand rent on the first day of the month. If you live in the premises, you can opt to have the payments put in your mailbox, but you can also provide a different mailing address. Be sure this is spelled out clearly in the rental agreement, including any grace period for payment of rent. For example, you could require that rent is due on the first day of the month and becomes late on the fifth day.

Under California landlord-tenant laws, you can also include a ​late-payment fee​ in the rental contract – an amount you will charge the tenant if the rent is not received when it is due. In order to be enforceable, a late fee has to be a reasonable estimate of the amount that the lateness of the payment will cost you. Under Civil Code Section 1719, you can also charge a fee for bounced checks in the amount of $25 for the first bounced check and $35 for each additional bounced check.

Right to Enter the Unit

When you rent a dwelling unit to a tenant, one of the tenant rights is having the quiet enjoyment of the property. That means you can't disturb the tenants by unauthorized or repeated entries. But there are times when it is important for you to have access to the property.

A landlord's ​right to access the property​ is generally described in the California Civil Code, but this can be significantly altered by rent control laws. If your property is in a rent control jurisdiction, check those laws first to see what they allow. If you are not in a rent control jurisdiction, general landlord-tenant laws apply. Applicable law is found in California Civil Code Section 1954. It gives a landlord the right to enter a rented unit in an emergency, to make repairs and when the tenant has abandoned the property. Note that:

  • You can enter only during normal business hours ​unless​ the tenant consents or there is an emergency.
  • You can enter only if you give 24 hours' notice of your intent to enter ​or​ the tenant gives consent and is present.

Right to Raise the Rent

Most cities in California do not have municipal rent control ordinances, but some do, including big cities like Los Angeles and San Francisco. In these cities, landlord's rights to increase residential rents are curtailed. If your property is rent controlled, you'll have to check with the local rent control board to find out how much you can raise the rent and how often.

In cities without rent control, a landlord has the ​right to raise rent​ when the term of the tenancy is over. During the term of a lease, the landlord cannot raise the rent unless the lease term includes a rent increase. But you can raise the rent at the end of a lease or, in a month-to-month tenancy, at the end of a month. And you can generally increase it by any amount as long as you give the tenant proper notice.

In order to increase a tenant's rent, you must notify them of the increase at least 30 days before the increase goes into effect. If the rent increase is over 10 percent, that notice period doubles to 60 days. You must notify the tenant in writing, specifying both the amount of the rent increase and the effective date.

Right to Terminate a Tenancy

When a landlord terminates a tenancy, it is also called an eviction. As is the case with rent increases, a landlord's ​right to evict​ can be very different and more limited if your rental property is located in a city with rent control laws. Usually rent control laws allow landlords to terminate tenancies only for cause, meaning the tenant has done something wrong. The steps to follow for rent control evictions are particular to each city.

If you live in a city without rent control, regular landlord-tenant laws apply in California. You cannot evict a tenant during the term of the lease unless you have cause. That means that you can evict the tenant if she violates a lease provision, like if she fails to make the monthly payment, sells illegal drugs from the apartment or regularly holds late-night noisy gatherings that disturb the neighbors.

On the other hand, you can evict a leasehold tenant without cause once the lease has ended if you give appropriate notice. Similarly, you can evict a month-to-month tenant without cause with appropriate notice. Under Civil Code Section 1946.1, you must provide 30 days' notice if the tenancy has been for less than a year or 60 days' notice if the tenancy has lasted a year or longer.

Termination for Failure to Pay Rent

Special rules apply when a landlord is terminating a tenancy because the tenant has ​failed to pay rent​ or has violated a rental provision in a way they can cure, like having a pet in a no-pet apartment. These notices are shorter and give the tenant the option to come clean (pay the rent or get rid of the pet) or else quit the premises. They are called ​3-day notices​ to pay rent or quit, or 3-day notices to cure breach or quit.

Unlawful Detainer Actions

If you terminate a tenancy with appropriate notice, but the tenant refuses to leave, you cannot simply change the locks. First, you must get a court order. The lawsuit you file in California to force a tenant to leave the premises is called an ​unlawful detainer action​.

Like every legal complaint in California, an unlawful detainer action must be served on the other party (here the tenant) in order to get the case moving. The tenant can then file a response to the complaint. The parties can use the discovery process to learn about the other party's allegations and evidence, and then the case will be scheduled for trial.

Many unlawful detainer actions end in compromise settlements where the tenant agrees to move out and the landlord agrees to give the tenant more time to do that. If a case goes through trial, and the landlord wins a judgment, he will also get the right to have the sheriff remove the tenant from the property and change the locks if the tenant does not leave voluntarily.

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