Tenant Responsibilities in California: Things to Know

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Every contract involves an exchange of promises, and the landlord/tenant contract is no exception. Under the terms of the rental contract, the landlord agrees to allow the tenant to live in a dwelling unit he owns, while the tenant promises to pay a set amount of rent on a monthly basis. But the rent exchange is not the only responsibility the parties have under the laws. The landlord also has a responsibility in California to offer a safe, habitable unit, and the tenant must take care of the premises and maintain it in reasonably good condition.

California Rental Agreement

In California, the terms of a rental agreement are not limited to the precise language of the contract. If a written contract is involved, it is likely to contain some terms and conditions that the parties agree to abide by, including the rental amount, specifics about when and to whom the rent is to be paid, and security deposit information. All of these express conditions, if legal, are binding on both parties.

A contract may also set out specific duties that fall to the tenant that are unique to the situation, like a tenant's agreement to mow the lawn, feed the horses or undertake other chores as part of the consideration for the rental. Since these types of obligations are specific to the circumstances of a particular agreement, they must be spelled out and clearly agreed to in order to be considered part of the contract.

However, California law does read some implied conditions into the rental contract, whether written or not. These include a landlord's duty to provide a rental unit that is safe and fit for human occupancy, and a tenant's responsibility to keep the dwelling in reasonably good condition.

Landlord Must Provide "Tenantable" Unit

A landlord cannot rent a residential unit to a tenant in California unless it is in safe, habitable condition. In the Civil Code, an apartment that is fit for human occupancy is called "tenantable." California Civil Code Section 1941.1 states that a rental unit is uninhabitable if it does not have:

  • Effective waterproofing and weather protection of roof and exterior walls, including unbroken windows and doors.
  • Plumbing or gas facilities that conform to applicable law in effect at the time of installation and maintained in good working order.
  • A water supply approved under applicable law that is under the control of the tenant, capable of producing hot and cold running water, or a system that is under the control of the landlord that produces hot and cold running water, furnished to appropriate fixtures and connected to a sewage disposal system approved under applicable law.
  • Heating facilities that conformed with applicable law at the time of installation and maintained in good working order.
  • Electrical lighting with wiring and electrical equipment that conformed with applicable law at the time of installation and maintained in good working order.
  • Building, grounds and appurtenances at the time of the commencement of the lease or rental agreement and all areas under control of the landlord kept in every part clean, sanitary and free from all accumulations of debris, filth, rubbish, garbage, rodents and vermin.
  • An adequate number of appropriate receptacles for garbage and rubbish in clean condition and good repair at the time of the commencement of the lease or rental agreement with the landlord providing appropriate serviceable receptacles thereafter, and being responsible for the clean condition and good repair of the receptacles under his or her control.
  • Floors, stairways and railings maintained in good repair.

The landlord also has the responsibility to make repairs on these items during the term of the tenancy, if necessary. This is not true if the damage is caused by the tenant.

Tenant Must Maintain Premises

In California, a tenant also has implied obligations to take care of the rental unit. She is not purchasing the unit to hold as her own. Rather, she is renting it for a term of years or on a month-to-month basis. At some point, the tenant will leave the unit, and the landlord will have possession once again. The landlord is entitled to get back a rental unit that is in basically the same condition as the one he rented out.

That is why California law gives the tenant affirmative responsibilities to take action to maintain the property and keep it from being damaged. Under Civil Code Section 1941.2, the tenant must:

  • Keep that part of the premises which he occupies and uses clean and sanitary as the condition of the premises permits.
  • Dispose of all rubbish, garbage and other waste from the unit in a clean and sanitary manner.
  • Properly use and operate all electrical, gas and plumbing fixtures and keep them as clean and sanitary as their condition permits.
  • Not permit any person on the premises to destroy, deface, damage, impair or remove any part of the structure, the dwelling unit or the facilities or equipment, nor to do so himself.
  • Occupy the premises as his abode, utilizing only appropriate parts of it for living, sleeping, cooking or dining purposes.

Security Deposit Protects Landlord

California landlords can require a new tenant to provide a security deposit when she first moves in. The amount of the total security deposit (all moneys required on move-in other than rent) is capped at two times the monthly rent for unfurnished apartments, three times the rent for furnished apartments. Security deposits are held by the landlord and, when the tenant moves out, the landlord can use the deposit to repair any damage the tenant caused to the dwelling.

The tenant is not required to pay for damages due to normal wear and tear of the unit. For example, if he has lived there for 10 years, the paint may be faded and the carpets worn. But this is a natural result of living in the apartment for a decade, and it is the landlord's responsibility.

On the other hand, if there are holes bashed in the walls, appliances or furnishings removed, deep scratches on the floor or any other significant damage done by the tenant, her guests or her pets, these are the tenant's responsibility. If she refuses to pay for repairs, the landlord can have the repairs done and can use the security deposit to pay for the work.

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