A landlord-tenant residential rental agreement is a contract, like so many other written agreements. But because it involves a dwelling, also known as someone's home, the state of California gives tenants extra rights and protections in the state codes. There are also certain protections from eviction for financial difficulties related to the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of these have expired or will expire in the near future.
But rights are only useful when they are exercised, so it is essential for everyone who rents a dwelling unit in California to get a firm idea of how and when they are protected. Start with getting answers to a few of the most common questions tenants have about California laws.
When Is Rent Due?
Generally, rent is due on the first of the month, but the parties can specify a different date in their rental agreement. While a landlord may give a tenant a grace period to pay the rent in the agreement (such as "rent due on the first of the month and late as of the fourth of the month"), there is no grace period included in California landlord-tenant laws. Rent is considered paid when it is delivered to the address provided by the landlord for rent payment.
Must I Pay a Late Fee?
A landlord can only charge a tenant a late fee if late fees are specified in the rental agreement. Otherwise, late fees are not permitted. In general, a late fee cannot be excessive, and the amount must be reasonably related to the extra costs incurred by the landlord. If the late fee is so high as to constitute a penalty, it is illegal.
Note that a landlord can also charge a fee to a tenant who pays with a check if the check is not honored by the bank. Again, this fee must be reasonably related to the costs and inconvenience to the landlord.
What Is the Covenant of Quiet Enjoyment?
California law reads two implied covenants into every rental agreement. One is the covenant of quiet enjoyment; the other is the warranty of habitability. Both are intended by the legislature to ensure that tenants get full use of their premises.
The covenant of quiet enjoyment, found in California Civil Code Section 1927, gives a California tenant the right to enjoy their rental unit and benefit from its full use without substantial interference from the landlord. To implement this, the legislature limits the reasons a landlord can enter a tenant's dwelling and usually requires advance written notice.
The only time a landlord can enter the property without advance notice is in an emergency. For example, if the unit is on fire, the landlord has the right to enter. Otherwise, the landlord has the right to enter only to fix repairs or supply services that the tenant has requested or agreed to. The time and date should also be a subject of agreement. The landlord can also enter to show the unit to prospective new tenants with appropriate written notice to the tenant.
Note that the implied covenant of quiet enjoyment is not limited to prohibiting entry by the landlord. The landlord must take reasonable action to stop a neighbor’s interference as well.
What Is the Warranty of Habitability?
California law imposes the warranty of habitability into every residential rental agreement in the state. This implied warranty gives every tenant the right to occupy a habitable (that is, livable) rental unit that meets basic health and safety standards and is generally well-maintained and in good repair. If a landlord refuses to maintain essential elements of the dwelling, the law gives the tenant additional legal rights, including the right to have the faulty feature repaired and to deduct from the rent the cost of those repairs.
Note that not every issue rises to the level of a habitability matter. But state law requires that every rental unit must have:
- Windows and doors that are not broken.
- Waterproofing and weather protection of roof and exterior walls.
- Plumbing, electricity, heating, hot and cold running water, a serviceable toilet and sink.
- Common areas and grounds that are free of garbage, debris, filth, rubbish and rodents.
- Adequate trash receptacles.
- Functioning and safe floors, stairways and railings.
- Deadbolt locks.
- Free of lead paint hazards.
- No element on the premises that is dangerous, detrimental to health or morally offensive and obnoxious.
The California State Housing Law and Uniform Housing Code supplements the tenant's right to a fit and habitable dwelling. In addition, local housing laws often provide stricter regulations.
What to Do if the Landlord Refuses to Repair?
A landlord in California has a legal obligation to take care of important maintenance issues. If they refuse to do so, a tenant has a number of options. The two primary options are to withhold rent and make repairs and deduct the cost.
The first step for any tenant who finds themselves with a serious safety or habitability issue in their dwelling unit is to notify the landlord in writing. The letter should describe the problem in detail, how it affects the tenancy and tells the landlord exactly what needs to be done and when. Since it is possible the matter could turn into a lawsuit, a tenant should collect evidence such as photos, copies of correspondence and notes of any conversations.
How Does Rent Withholding Work?
Withholding rent is exactly what it sounds like: a tenant stops paying rent to the landlord until the repairs are made. Remember that the issue cannot simply be irritating, like a leaky faucet; it must be a serious habitability problem that puts the tenants' health or safety in danger, like a broken water heater. Nor can a tenant withhold rent if they themselves caused the problem.
The tenant should inform the landlord that if the problem is not fixed in a reasonable time, they will withhold rent. How much can they withhold? If the tenant must move out due to the premises being uninhabitable, they can stop paying any rent. If not, they need to pay the landlord the reasonable value of the rental in its unfit state.
How Does Repair and Deduct Work?
The second common and persuasive legal remedy in California is repair and deduct. A tenant who has tried and failed to get a landlord to remedy a serious defect in the rental unit can fix it themselves or pay a repair person to fix it. Then they can deduct the cost from the following month's rent. Under California law, the amount of the repair cannot be more than one month's rent, and a tenant cannot use this remedy more than twice in a year.
To use this remedy, it is important that the tenant gives the landlord notice of the issue and a reasonable time to repair it themselves. It is also a good idea to get several bids on repairs, especially if the matter is an expensive one to fix.
Can a Landlord Retaliate?
No, they cannot, but sometimes they try. The same laws that allow for tenant remedies make it illegal for California landlords to retaliate against tenants who exercise their statutory rights. In fact, retaliatory eviction is a common and often successful defense to landlord unlawful detainer actions. The key for a tenant is to have created a complete record of the problem and retained copies of their correspondence and communications with the landlord about the issue.
Can a Landlord Evict Me Without Cause?
An eviction occurs when a landlord has terminated the tenancy and the tenant refuses to leave. The rules about when a landlord can terminate a tenancy depend on whether the tenant has a lease agreement or a month-to-month tenancy. A lease agreement is for a set period of time, usually one year. During that time, the landlord can neither raise the rent nor terminate the tenancy other than for a breach of the lease. A landlord can terminate the tenancy at the end of the lease term by notice to the tenant. If they do not terminate or renew the lease, the tenancy continues as a month-to-month tenancy.
Most tenancies in California are month-to-month, with the tenant paying at the beginning of each month to cover rent for that month. Generally, a landlord is free to terminate a month-to-month tenancy for any reason other than those that are illegal, like retaliation or discrimination. They must give the tenant 30 days' notice of the termination and double that amount if the tenant has occupied the premises for a year or more. If the tenant doesn't move out per the notice, the landlord can file an unlawful detainer action in court to evict the tenant.
Note that many urban areas in California have local rent control laws. Many of these prevent a landlord from evicting a tenant without good cause. It's always a good idea for a tenant to get in touch with their local rent control office to learn their rights if they get a notice for termination of tenancy.
Can I Be Evicted if I'm Late With My Rent?
The basic duty of a tenant under a rental agreement is to pay the rent when it's due. Failure to do so, absent a good reason for rent withholding, can result in an eviction notice. This is the primary reason for eviction in California. But that doesn't mean that when a tenant fails to pay rent on the first of the month, they are out on the street on the second.
Most rental contracts contain a grace period during which the landlord will accept rent. And, even if the tenant doesn't pay during this period, the landlord is forbidden under California law from taking self-help measures to evict for nonpayment of rent. Rather, they must serve the tenant with a three-day notice to pay rent or quit.
If the renter pays the unpaid rent within that period, the tenancy continues. If not, the landlord files an unlawful detainer action against the tenant. This is conducted as an expedited trial, with each side presenting its evidence. If the landlord wins, they can give the warrant of eviction to the sheriff who gives the tenant notice of the eviction date.
Can the Landlord Raise My Rent?
California rental laws restrict the amount that a landlord can increase the rent for residential tenants. The state's Tenant Protection Act of 2019 put statewide rent control laws in place that impact most residential tenancies in California. It limits rent increases to one time a year. In addition, it imposes a rental increase cap on those units subject to the law, setting the cap at 5 percent plus inflation. There is an alternative cap at 10 percent of the lowest gross rent charged for the unit during the prior year. The cap that results in the lower increase is the one the state will enforce.
But that is just the beginning. The state permits cities and counties to enact their own rent control laws, more or less restrictive than the state laws. However, only those laws that are more restrictive are enforced. Those that are less restrictive are superseded by the state law.
It is important to check with local government to ascertain whether a rent control law is in effect and how it might affect a particular unit. Note that even less restrictive local rent control laws might help keep rent increases down in rental properties that the state law does not cover.
What About My Security Deposit?
California landlords may ask a tenant for a security deposit of up to two months' rent if a unit is unfurnished, three months' rent for a furnished unit. These amounts are less if the tenant is an active service member, in which case it is one month's rent for an unfurnished rental, two month's rent for a furnished rental. A tenant who has a waterbed can be charged an extra security deposit equal to one-half of one month's rent. State law does not require that a landlord pay interest on the security deposit, but local laws often do.
All fees, whatever they are called, are considered to be part of the security deposit and must total less than the statutory limit. All of these fees, no matter how characterized in a rental contract, are refundable. A California landlord has 21 calendar days after the tenant moves out of the premises to either return the entire deposit or provide the tenant with an itemized statement indicating the amount of, and use, of any portion of the security deposit that was not returned.
Teo Spengler earned a JD from U.C. Berkeley Law School. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an MA and an MFA in English/writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.