Rental Agreements in California: Key Terms to Look For

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A residential rent agreement in California usually contains certain specific terms, such as the name of the tenant, the unit the tenant is renting, the amount of rent, the date rent is due and the term of the lease, such as a month-to-month tenancy. In California, it is not a requirement for a lease to contain particular words or language. It is typical that both the renter and the landlord sign the lease because they have mutual obligations. The renter must pay the rent; the landlord must let the premises and keep them in good condition.

Length of the Lease

According to California’s Statute of Frauds, a lease must be in writing if it has a term of longer than one year. A lease must also be in writing if it has a term of less than one year but expires more than one year after the agreement is formed. An example is a lease for a 10-month term that begins three months after the date the parties sign the agreement. Such a lease is common in areas where apartments have a wait list.

A lease for one year or less can be created by a verbal agreement. Most leases, even those with month-to-month terms, are put in writing. A fixed-term rental agreement sets a specific time period for a tenancy, such as 12 months. A fixed-term lease ends at the end of the stated period, not at the end of the month.

Unenforceable Terms in Leases

Language in a lease may be deemed unenforceable if it is contrary to public policy or if it violates health and safety regulations or criminal statutes. For example, California law provides that a landlord cannot relieve his liability for damage caused to tenants through the landlord’s misconduct. Examples of this would be if a landlord withheld maintenance on the property, such as not paying for garbage service or refusing to fix a broken entry gate. A court would hold that the lease clause that eliminates the landlord’s liability is void and unenforceable.

Leases in Spanish

California law states that when a landlord and a tenant negotiate a residential lease in Spanish, the lease must be written in Spanish. This law applies to the rental, lease and sublease of apartments and other dwellings, including mobile homes, for a period of longer than one month. The law does not cover month-to-month and week-to-week rental contracts.

State Rent Control

AB 1482, the Tenant Protection Act of 2019, took effect in January 2020. This law imposes rent control throughout California. It applies mostly to apartments and multifamily buildings, as well as some single-family homes. The law does not apply to condominiums and single-family homes unless these units are owned by a corporation or real estate investment trust. It also does not apply to duplexes in which an owner lives in one of the units.

The law prohibits a landlord from raising rent over than 5 percent plus the local rate of inflation in one year. The rate of inflation is tied to the Consumer Price Index in a metropolitan area. The total percentage that the rent can be raised in one year cannot be more than 10 percent. A multiyear residential lease that requires a tenant to pay more than the law’s allotted increases is invalid.

Local Rent Control Rules

A city or county may impose additional rent control rules on landlords. In southern California, the City of Los Angeles and unincorporated neighborhoods of Los Angeles County have local rent control laws. San Francisco also has a local rent control law. It provides information about the annual allowable increase for units in the city for the current year. A landlord is required to abide by state and local rules.

Amount of Security Deposit

A residential lease usually contains the amount of the security deposit. The lease is not required to contain this language, but many leases do. California Civil Code Section 1950.5 limits the amount of a security deposit to three times the monthly rent for a furnished unit and two times the monthly rent for an unfurnished unit. As an example, if a tenant’s monthly rent is $800, the landlord can charge up to $1,600 for a security deposit on an unfurnished apartment. The maximum amount differs for active service members.

A landlord can require a tenant to pay a security deposit in addition to the first month’s rent. Over time, she can increase the amount of the security deposit until the deposit reaches the maximum levels provided by law. A landlord can also increase a security deposit when a tenant’s lease is up. Some California cities have passed ordinances that require a landlord to pay interest on a security deposit.

Transfer of Deposit to New Landlord

When the rental unit is sold to another owner, the landlord must transfer the entire amount of the security deposit to the new owner. If the previous owner does not transfer the security deposit to the new owner, the tenant can sue the prior owner for the return of the funds. A tenant who learns that her unit is being sold to a new owner should request information from the prior owner to verify that her security deposit has been transferred and to get the name and address of the prior owner.

Late Fees Allowed

A California lease is not required to specify a due date for rent. However, it can do so, and many residential leases do. Most leases require rent to be paid on the first of the month or within the first five days of the month. A landlord can charge a tenant a late fee if rent is not paid on time. A late fee that is about 5 percent or less of the rent for the term (typically monthly or weekly) is considered reasonable.

Notice of Moving Out

The term of the lease determines how many days' written notice a tenant has to give a landlord before moving out. For a month-to-month lease, a tenant must give 30 days' notice in writing. For a week-to-week lease, a tenant must give seven days' notice in writing. A tenant who does not give such notice will be charged for unpaid rent. A clarification of these responsibilities may or may not be in the lease.

When a tenant moves in and out of a rental unit, he can request a walk-through of the unit. The purpose of the walk-through is to inspect the condition of the unit and any damage to it. A tenant can elect to do a move-in inspection and a move-out inspection with the landlord present. A tenant has the right to receive a copy of the checklist at both times. The language regarding the walk-through and checklist may or may not be in the lease.

Rules for Eviction

Language regarding eviction may or may not be in the lease. The rules regarding eviction are determined by state and local laws. Before evicting a tenant, a landlord must get a court order that gives her the right to do so. The landlord has to file an Unlawful Detainer action after giving a tenant written notice to move out. The notice may be a 3-Day, 30-Day, 60-Day, or 90-Day Notice.

A landlord can evict a tenant if the tenant does not pay rent on time; breaks the lease; refuses to fix damages caused by the tenant; damages the property by bringing down its value; becomes a serious nuisance by disturbing other tenants and neighbors; or uses the property to commit an illegal act. Typically, a landlord can also evict a tenant if the tenant stays after the lease has ended, if the landlord cancels the rental agreement by giving proper notice. There are special rules regarding eviction of tenants from tax credit units and tenants of mobile home and RV parks.

Landlord-Tenant Laws

California courts offer a number of self-help resources for both landlords and tenants. In many areas, a low-income tenant struggling with an eviction is eligible to get help from his county or city legal aid office. A legal aid office can help a client with legal strategy, timing responses appropriately and completing forms. The California Bar’s Lawyer Referral Service can help a landlord find a lawyer experienced in landlord/tenant law.

Multiple Tenants on the Lease

A lease should identify all individuals who are bound to the contract and considered tenants. If one tenant is renting the unit and wants to have a roommate move in, the landlord must first approve the second tenant. All parties should then sign a new lease. This lease binds the landlord and both tenants. A landlord can raise the rent at this time. This is because the lease is a new contract.

Guests and Overnight Stays

A lease usually states the number of nights that a tenant may have an overnight guest. The number of nights usually ranges between one and 15. A lease can also forbid a tenant from having any overnight guests. It may also limit the number of consecutive nights a guest can stay and the number of overnight guests a tenant may have overall.

When a guest starts to take certain actions, he may transform into a tenant. A guest who receives mail at the address, moves furniture into the unit, has a key to the unit and regularly sleeps at the unit is likely in the process of becoming a tenant. A guest who pays rent or utilities directly to the landlord through a verbal or written agreement has already become a tenant. This is true even if the tenant and landlord have not signed a formal, written lease.

A landlord who chooses not to accept a guest’s continued presence or to enter into a lease with an uninvited guest can serve the existing tenant with a notice that the tenant has violated her lease. The landlord can also state he will terminate the rental agreement through an eviction. A landlord cannot rewrite an existing lease to disallow guests or change the conditions for guest stays in the middle of the tenant’s lease term.

Subletting a Rental Unit

A landlord can allow a tenant to sublet her unit to a third party. The third party then becomes a subtenant, who pays rent to the tenant. Language allowing subletting can be written into a lease. When a subtenant starts paying rent directly to the landlord, there is a strong argument that the tenant and subtenant relationship has ceased to exist. The subtenant may then become a tenant who is a party to a rental agreement with the landlord.