What are a landlord’s responsibilities regarding repairs?

A landlord must make a rental unit habitable both prior to and during a lease. The landlord is legally required to make all necessary repairs to ensure habitability. The case of Green v. Superior Court held that all residential rental agreements contain an implied warranty of habitability. [1] A landlord is responsible for repairing all serious defects that affect a rental unit’s habitability.[2] In addition the landlord is responsible for any significant failures to comply with state and local building and health codes.[3]

What are a tenant’s responsibilities regarding repairs?

Under the implied warranty of habitability, a landlord is not responsible for damages caused by a tenant or a tenant’s guest, family or pets. Tenants are legally required to maintain their rental units, including common areas such as hallways. The law specifies that tenants are responsible for any damage that results from their neglect or abuse. A tenant may be required to pay for repairs caused by the tenant or the tenant’s family, pets or guests.[4]

What are some techniques that a tenant may legally use to compel a landlord to make repairs?

If a rental unit has significant habitability issues that directly affect a tenant’s health and safety and the landlord does not make repairs without good reason, the tenant has the following remedies:

  • The tenant may undertake the repairs or pay to have them done and then deduct the cost, up to the amount of one month’s rent.[5] This is referred to as the “repair and deduct” remedy.
  • The tenant may voluntarily abandon the unit or threaten to abandon if repairs are not made. This is referred to as the “abandonment” remedy.
  • The tenant may withhold rent until the repairs are completed. A tenant is legally able to stop paying some or all of the rent if the landlord refuses to fix defects that compromise habitability of the rental unit. This is called the “rent withholding” remedy.

In each of these cases, the tenant is legally obligated to give the landlord notice of intent. The law specifies that the tenant must give this notice either orally or in writing. If notice is given by email or fax, it is important to follow up with a written letter. The tenant should sign and date the letter and keep a copy.[6]

Note that employing any of these techniques is extremely risky and generally not recommended as they may lead a landlord to evict. Evictions are difficult and expensive to defend and can be very stressful.

Can a tenant file a petition with the rent-control agency?

Many cities have local rent-control agencies with the power to reduce rent. In cases of habitability defects, a tenant may file a petition to reduce rent until the landlord makes repairs. A tenant is required to show a substantial decrease in services such as no heat, lack of clean water, mold, rodents, etc. It is important to note that rent control agencies only have the power to reduce rent. A tenant may recover up to four years of back rent. The tenant can continue to live in the unit at the reduced rent. If a landlord cannot pay a judgment in a Superior Court lawsuit and does not have property liability insurance, reduced rent may be the only way for a tenant to recover.

How can the local building inspector help?

A tenant may also wish to contact the local department of building inspection. The building inspector can visit and cite the landlord for any defects in need of repair. The building inspector can also force the landlord to make repairs by issuing fines for non-compliance. It’s a good idea for a tenant to present during any building inspection to point out defects. If the landlord still refuses to make repairs after being cited, a tenant should pursue legal action against the landlord.

Under what circumstances may a tenant withhold rent or deduct the cost of repairs from his or her rent?

A tenant may deduct money from the rent, up to the amount of one month’s rent, to pay for repairs.  A tenant may also withhold rent in order to compel a landlord to complete necessary repairs. This may include any conditions that affect the tenant’s health and safety and that substantially reduce the habitability of the unit, for example, a leaky roof, a gas leak or no hot running water. You will want to speak to a lawyer before withholding rent because it can lead to an eviction.

Under what circumstances might a tenant choose to abandon an uninhabitable rental unit?

Under certain extreme circumstances, a tenant might choose to move out of an uninhabitable rental unit rather than attempt to have repairs made. If a tenant abandons a rental unit because of serious health and safety concerns, the landlord is not entitled to collect rent. It is likely that the tenant has a lawsuit against the landlord.[7] A tenant who is considering abandoning a unit is encouraged to speak with a lawyer. A judge or jury may find that the issues were not serious enough to warrant abandonment.

[1]    Green v. Superior Court, 10 Cal. 3d 616 (1974)

[2]    Green v. Superior Court, 10 Cal. 3d 616 (1974)

[3]    Green v. Superior Court (1974) 10 Cal.3d 616, 637-638 [111 Cal.Rptr. 704, 718-719].

[4]    Civil Code §§ 1929 & 1941.2

[5]    Civil Code § 1942

[6]    Civil Code § 1942(a)

[7]    Civil Code § 1942.