Rent Withholding in California: Tenant Rights to Repair & Deduct

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In the Golden State, landlords and property managers are beholden to a wide gamut of laws, ranging from building requirements in the California Building Standards Code to rent control ordinances to regulations on fee collections as detailed in the California Codes.

These laws make it clear that West Coast tenants enjoy broad legal protections, including what's known as an implied warranty of habitability when they rent. When this implied warranty is breached, California renters have the right to withhold rent payments. However, this is usually a more drastic measure and must be exercised within detailed legal limits to hold up in a court of law.

Defining Habitability in California

It's vital to understand how the state of California legally defines adequate habitability of a rental property because the region's rent withholding and repair and deduct laws largely hinge on whether or not the landlord has provided a habitable, safe and livable space. The details mostly reside in California Civil Code Sections 1941.1 and 1941.3, which state that a dwelling is untenantable if it substantially lacks such features as:

  • Effective waterproofing or weather protection, including windows and doors.
  • Deadbolt locks on key doors and windows.
  • Working gas and plumbing fixtures that meet current building code standards.
  • Hot and cold running water under the tenant's control that meet water safety standards.
  • A functioning kitchen sink and toilet.
  • Working heating facilities.
  • Electric lighting and wiring up to current building codes.
  • Clean and sanitary buildings and grounds free from rubbish, filth, debris and vermin.
  • Sufficient garbage receptacles in good repair.
  • Well-maintained floors, stairways and railings.
  • Paint free of lead hazards.
  • A locking mailbox for each residential unit.

Additionally, the rented unit must be free from considerable nuisances and must not subject tenants to elements that are detrimental to their well-being or deemed morally reprehensible, such as crimes occurring openly on the premises. The state's Uniform Housing Code and local city and county governments pile on additional requirements, which may include more-specific standards in areas like lighting and ventilation.

Rent Withholding in California

Before withholding rent, tenants can cover their legal bases by making repair requests pertaining to all habitability conditions in specific, clear and detailed language, ideally with multiple copies and photo evidence.

If the problem is not addressed in a timely manner, the tenant has the right to stop paying rent until the landlord makes the necessary requested repairs. However, the repair in question must be related to a serious habitability issue and not just an annoyance. For instance, failure to replace an ugly carpet isn't grounds for withholding rent, but dangerous exposed wiring that's not up to current building codes is.

Withholding: When and How Much

In order to legally withhold rent, the problem in need of repair must not have been caused by the tenant or a guest of the tenant, purposefully or by neglect or recklessness. Likewise, the landlord must have been given a reasonable opportunity to address the issue. In California, landlords have up to 30 days to make habitability repairs, though urgent repairs, such as no running water, must be made sooner.

Speaking of "reasonable," the amount of rent withheld must be reasonable relative to the problem. This value can be difficult to determine but, as a rule of thumb, the amount of rent deducted should reflect the value of the specific issue in need of repair relative to the entire amount of rent of the unit.

Basically, this means that if the tenant is still living in the rental unit, he can't withhold 100 percent of the rent, because the unit is clearly not 100 percent uninhabitable in this case. In some California localities, the withheld rent must be paid to an official city escrow account.

Right to Repair and Deduct

Section 1941.1 of the California Civil Code addresses another option tenants have for dealing with uninhabitable conditions. If a landlord fails to make repairs that significantly affect habitability within a reasonable time frame, tenants have the right to hire a professional to fix the problem or to repair the problem themselves using money out of their own pockets in either case, then deducting those expenses from the total monthly rent. This is known as the repair and deduct option.

Like rent withholding, repair and deduct comes with some legal limitations. Here, too, the problem can't be of the tenant's willful or neglectful doing. With the repair and deduct method, the tenant can make no more than two deductions in a 12-month period, and the tenant cannot deduct more than the total of a single month's rent for the repairs.

If these conditions are met, a tenant who rents a $2,362 unit — the median asking price of a one-bedroom rental in Los Angeles in 2019, according to Business Insider, Zillow and StreetEasy data — and spends $197 on a necessary toilet repair that the landlord didn't reasonably address can pay reduced rent of $2,165 for the month. To prove that they're within their legal rights, tenants can document the notice they've given the landlord, shop around for fair pricing and keep detailed records of the money that was spent on the repair.

Tenant and Landlord Retaliations

Along with rent withholding and the repair and deduct route, California renters are, of course, fully entitled to report landlords to state or local building health inspectors, such as the housing code enforcement branches of the California Department of Public Health. Tenants can also bring lawsuits against landlords, typically in small claims court, or if serious habitability-related repairs have simply not been reasonably addressed, move out without notice.

While these tenant retaliations are perfectly legal, landlord retaliation is not. Per California Civil Code Section 1924.5(a), landlord retaliation is considered to be harassing behavior from landlords toward tenants in response to tenants exercising their legal rights, such as rent withholding or repairing the problem and deducting the cost within legal limits. Retaliatory measures, such as limiting services, raising rent, forcing eviction, removing a tenant's possessions or shutting off utilities are a legal no-go in California.

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