Landlord and Tenant Law
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- Are all rental agreements alike?
- Must rental agreements be in writing?
- Can I change a written agreement?
- Do I owe any money besides the rent?
- What happens when my lease runs out?
- Who should make repairs in my home?
- Can the owner come into my home without asking me?
- What are the owner's rights?
- What are my rights?
- Can I report the owner if the apartment is unlivable?
- What can I do instead of reporting the owner?
- Can the owner sue to evict me?
- Can the owner lock me out?
- How do I handle an eviction suit?
- What can I do if I lose the suit?
- What can I do about discrimination?
- How can I find a lawyer to represent me?
No. There are several kinds of rental agreements, including a "lease" for a specific time period or renting "month-to-month."
A lease is for a definite period of time-generally one year. Unless you break the terms of the lease, the owner of your apartment or house (your landlord) cannot change the agreement or raise your rent-unless the lease says otherwise. The owner also cannot ask you to move until the lease period is up.
A month-to-month rental agreement is not for a set period of time. It continues until you decide to move or the owner asks you to leave. If you pay your rent monthly, you must give the owner 30 days written notice that you are moving. An owner who wants you to leave or who decides to raise your rent must inform you, in writing, 30 days ahead of time. However, you and the owner may agree in writing to a shorter notice.
Moreover, if you break the rules (by not paying the rent, for example, or by using the apartment for illegal purposes or creating a nuisance), the owner can give you a three-day notice and begin the eviction process.
No. Leases and month-to-month agreements may be oral or written. However, a lease for more than one year generally must be in writing to be binding.
Oral agreement. With an oral agreement, nothing is written down. You and the owner talk things over and come to an understanding. Some people like oral agreements because they have fewer rules. However, since you and the owner might remember the agreement differently in several months, it is generally better to put the agreement in writing. In addition, it is difficult to enforce an oral rental agreement.
Written agreement. If you have a written agreement, read it carefully and make sure that you understand it. Sometimes a month-to-month agreement or lease mentions additional "Rules and Regulations." Do not sign the agreement until you read the extra rules. Also, make sure that any blank spaces in the agreement are filled in or crossed out before you sign it and ask for a copy.
When you rent an apartment or house, ask for the name, address and telephone number of the owner or the owner's agent. You should have this information in case of an emergency, such as a broken water pipe or lost keys. You also should know where to reach the owner if you have a complaint.
In California, the law says that the names and addresses of the owner and manager must be on the rental agreement if the building has three or more apartments. This information can also be posted in the building in two places where tenants are likely to see it. If the owner's address is not listed, talk to your building manager. The manager must fill in for the owner.
You can make changes before you sign-as long as the owner agrees. Just cross out whatever the two of you agree to take out. Write in any additions. For instance, your agreement may say that the owner can give you as little as seven days notice before raising your rent. If you want more notice, you can ask the owner to change it to 30 days or cross it out. Both of you must initial all changes.
If you want to smoke or keep a pet in the apartment and the lease says that you cannot, you can ask if the owner will change that part of the agreement.
Some written agreements include rules that cannot be enforced. Many rental agreements are printed forms available at stationery stores. Often, these forms are out of date because the law has changed. You will not be bound by any illegal or outdated rules in the agreement you sign. For example, your agreement may say that the owner is not responsible if you get hurt because the building is not kept in good repair. But such a statement may not be legally valid. The agreement might say that you cannot make repairs and then deduct the cost from your rent. But sometimes you can.
You might. The owner has the right to ask for a number of fees and deposits. And you have the right to a receipt or written agreement that explains the charges and how you can get a refund later. Although the law considers all deposits to be "security deposits," here are some of the payments that the owner might ask you to make:
- Last month's rent in advance. The owner can ask you to pay the last month's rent before you move in. Then, if you give proper notice before moving out, you will not have to pay rent during the last month.
- Security deposit. This deposit can be used for such things as replacing a broken window or other damage caused while you were a tenant. But if you did not cause any damage, the security deposit should be given back to you.
- Cleaning fee or deposit. Some owners want a cleaning deposit or fee. Your lease may say that such a fee is not refundable. That, however, is illegal. Whether it is called a fee or a deposit, you usually can get the money back if you keep your place clean.
- Credit check fee. Many landlords will pass the cost of doing a credit check to you.
The owner must return your security deposit no later than three weeks after you move, or tell you in writing why you will not get it back. He or she must also account for how your money was spent. An owner who needs to use part of the money for cleaning or repairs must return the balance to you.
But what if the owner does not notify you? Or what if you believe the owner is not entitled to keep the money? You can sue in small claims court (see #14). If you win the case, you could get part or all of your deposits back. You also may be paid a penalty if the court decides that the owner failed to return the deposit because of "bad faith," which means it was not a mistake.
California law puts a limit on the total amount of deposits that can be required. The total cannot exceed the cost of two months rent for an unfurnished apartment or three months rent for a furnished place. Also, keep in mind that you are not covered by the owner's insurance policies. If you want insurance protection against fire and theft, you can purchase renter's insurance.
Read your lease carefully. It may explain what you must do. For example, the lease may have an "automatic-renewal" clause. This means that if you are planning to move, you must tell the owner before the lease runs out. The clause applies to the owner as well; he or she also must ask you to move before the lease ends. Otherwise, the lease will be renewed for the same period of time as the original agreement.
Note: Automatic-renewal clauses cannot be enforced unless they are printed in bold type as large as this.
What if you have a six-month or one-year lease, but no automatic-renewal clause? If you pay rent monthly and the owner accepts your rent after the lease is up, the agreement is automatically renewed on a month-to-month basis. Your lease may not be a standard six-month or one-year agreement. Instead, it may specify a particular ending date. In this case, you can stay in the apartment past that date on a month-to-month basis if the owner accepts your rent payment.
If you, your family or a friend cause the damage, you should complete the repair unless instructed not to by your lease or landlord. For example, if your child breaks a window, you must replace the glass. You can ask the owner or manager to make the repair, but be prepared to pay for it. If you did not cause the damage, however, the owner probably is responsible for the repairs.
The best time to ask for repairs or improvements is before you move in-but after the lease is signed. Walk through the apartment or house with the owner or manager and request the repairs. You may want to take a friend with you. Your friend can be a witness if you and the owner later disagree on any promised repairs.
It also is a good idea to take pictures of any problems, such as a broken table leg or light fixture. Both you and your friend should initial and date the photographs. These photos also can help ensure that your security deposit will be returned when you move.
If the repairs are not made by the agreed-upon date, mail a reminder and keep a copy.
Yes, but only in emergencies. For example, suppose a bathtub overflows in the apartment above yours. The owner can check your apartment for water damage-even if you are not home. The owner can enter your home for certain other reasons as well, but only after giving you a 24-hour notice and only during normal business hours. For example, if you plan to move, the owner has a right to show the apartment or house to prospective tenants. Or, the owner might want an electrician to check the wiring.
The owner has a right to expect you to follow the rules of your rental agreement. You should, for example, pay your rent on time and keep the apartment or house clean. And you should avoid bothering other tenants with noisy parties or a television set turned up full blast.
In addition, use the apartment or house only as it is meant to be used. For example, don't run a dry-cleaning business out of a residential rental apartment.
The owner also has the right to expect you to fix anything you damage. If you break a lamp in a furnished apartment, for instance, you should repair or replace it. If you don't follow the rules, the owner may have a good reason to ask you to move. And if you do not move, the owner can sue to evict you.
Also, although no one can refuse to rent to people with children, the owner can limit the number of people living in the apartment.
The owner also has the right to sell the building. If the building is sold, your lease will not change. The owner must either transfer your deposits to the new owner or refund them. If the deposits are transferred, the owner must tell you in writing and give you the new owner's name, address and telephone number.
You may rent your apartment to someone else-unless your agreement states otherwise. This is called "subleasing." If the agreement forbids subleasing, check with the owner and seek approval in writing. Be sure that your subtenant is responsible. If a subtenant causes damage or does not pay the rent, you will have to pay.
Some communities have "rent-control" laws that give you certain protections against rent increases. Such laws usually say when and how much your rent can be raised. Many local governments have "rent board" agencies that can help you with issues involving local rent laws and ordinances.
You also have the right to a decent place to live. The law says that your rental apartment must be livable. If the apartment is not livable-through no fault of your own-you can move. You may not have to pay rent after you move, even though you have a lease.
By law, for a place to be unlivable or "untenantable," the problem must be substantial and may include:
- a lack of waterproofing and weatherproofing (broken windows, for example),
- poor plumbing,
- insufficient hot and cold running water for bathing and cleaning,
- a lack of heat,
- electrical lighting that is not in good working order,
- unclean grounds and building,
- roaches and rodents,
- too few trash cans for your garbage, or
- floors, stairs and railings that are in disrepair.
Yes. Let's say the furnace has not worked for six weeks in the middle of winter-and the owner won't fix it, in spite of all your phone calls and letters. In this case, you can report the owner to a housing or building inspection department.
What if there are rats or mice in the building? Maybe garbage sits around for a week at a time. Call the county or city health department. A lot of trash in the hallways could be a fire hazard. In this case, report the owner to the fire department.
The government department you call may give the owner a written notice to correct the problem within 60 days. If there is no improvement in that time, you may be able to sue the owner.
If the problems affect tenantability (see #9), you can make repairs yourself or pay to have them made. Then, you may be able to deduct that money from your rent. But you cannot deduct more than the cost of one month's rent for any one repair. And you cannot deduct repair costs more than twice a year.
You could stop paying rent until the repairs are made. However, this can be a risky procedure without legal advice because the owner may sue you. And you probably should put your rent money into an "escrow" account. This will ensure that you have the money to pay the rent after the repairs have been made, or if you have to move.
In either case, write to the owner first and explain what you plan to do. You also must give the owner a reasonable amount of time to make the repairs. Please note that both of these remedies can result in an eviction if they aren't done correctly. Seek legal help before withholding rent or paying for repairs.
If you have a major complaint, it is possible that the other tenants do as well. Arrange a meeting to discuss the problem. Perhaps all of the tenants will sign a letter asking the owner to make the repair or improvement. They may want to select someone to meet with the owner on behalf of the tenants.
If all else fails, you and your fellow tenants might consider holding a rent strike. But before doing so, consider pooling your money and hiring a lawyer. In California, rent strikes are legal only under certain conditions. Even if you do not hold a rent strike, you may need a lawyer's help.
Yes. In some cases, the owner can sue whether your rental agreement is a lease or a month-to-month rental agreement.
If you have a lease, the owner can try to evict you for such reasons as not paying your rent or creating a nuisance. In these cases, the owner must give you a three-day written notice to move before suing to evict you. The owner also might sue to evict you if you break part of the agreement-or if you are asked to leave when your lease runs out and you refuse to do so.
If you have a month-to-month rental agreement, the owner can give you a 30-day notice in writing, even if you have not done anything wrong. If you do not move within that time, the owner can sue to evict you. However, some communities have laws that limit evictions to certain "good cause" reasons.
In order to have you evicted, the owner must go to court. The suit against you is called an "unlawful detainer" action.
Here is how an eviction suit starts. After you receive either a three-day or 30-day notice and that time has passed, the owner will send you a "complaint." This is a document stating that you are being sued. You have five days-including weekends-to reply to the complaint. You also will receive a "summons," which tells you when and where to respond. You must reply to the complaint in writing, using the proper court forms. If you do not, the case probably will be decided in the owner's favor.
To try avoiding a lawsuit, you might suggest "mediation." This means that a "neutral third party"-someone who has nothing to do with the problem-will try to help you and the owner settle your differences.
To locate a mediation program in your area, contact the Dispute Resolution Coordinator, Department of Consumer Affairs, 400 R Street, Suite 3090, Sacramento, CA 95814, 916-322-5254, and ask for a free copy of a directory of dispute resolution programs. Or, visit the department's web site at www.dca.ca.gov.
By law, an owner who wants you to move cannot lock you out of your apartment or house-or remove your belongings or any doors or windows. Nor can an owner legally turn off the gas, electricity, heat or water. If any of these things happen, you can take the owner to court.
If you win the case, the owner will have to pay for any damage.
For example, the food in your refrigerator may have spoiled because the electricity was turned off. The owner may have to pay you up to $100 for each day that the utilities were turned off or at least $250 for every law that was broken. The owner also may have to pay your lawyer. If you lose the case, however, you may have to pay the owner's lawyer.
If the suit involves money and the amount is $5,000 or less, the owner may take you to small claims court. (See the State Bar pamphlet How Do I Use the Small Claims Court? For information on ordering a complimentary copy, call 415-538-2280 or visit the State Bar web site at www.calbar.ca.gov)
Lawyers are not allowed in small claims court, but you can seek a lawyer's assistance beforehand. For example, a lawyer can help determine if you can claim that the eviction suit is "retaliatory." That means that the owner is seeking to punish you illegally because, for example, you filed a complaint with a building inspector.
Most eviction suits, however, are filed in state court (called a municipal court in some counties and superior court in others) where lawyers can represent you and the owner, too.
If you lose, you will have to move and you may have to pay the owner's costs of going to court, including attorney fees and back due rent. You also are allowed to "appeal." This means you can ask a higher court to rehear your case. But you will still have to move, unless the court grants a "stay" or delay until the case is finally decided.
If you do not appeal, you have no choice but to move. Otherwise, the owner can get a "writ of possession." This is a paper that orders the sheriff to move you out. If you are in the apartment, he or she will put you on the sidewalk.
What if you move out but leave your belongings behind? If your things are worth less than $300, the owner can keep or sell them, or throw them out. If they are worth more than $300, the owner must give you 15 days (18 days if the notice comes by mail) to retrieve them. If the owner puts your things into storage during that time, you may have to pay storage charges.
You may believe that the owner of an apartment or house won't rent to you or is evicting you because of your race, religion, national origin, ancestry, age, sexual orientation, sex or disability. Perhaps the owner won't rent to you and a person of the opposite sex because you aren't married.
If so, write or call the nearest office of the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing or the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). You should know, however, that the owners of housing for senior citizens do not have to accept families with children.
If you do not know a lawyer, ask a friend, co-worker, employer or business associate to recommend one. You may want to ask if the lawyer has some experience in landlord/tenant law. Or, call a local State Bar-certified lawyer referral service. Look in the Yellow Pages of your telephone directory at the beginning of the "Attorneys" listings under "Attorney Referral Service," or contact the local bar association.
The person who answers your call can make an appointment for you to see a lawyer. You will pay a small fee for the referral and may talk with the lawyer for about half an hour. Then, if you decide to hire the lawyer, make sure you understand what you will be paying for, how much it will cost and when you will be expected to pay your bill.
What if you do not have enough money to pay for legal advice? You may belong to a "legal insurance plan" that covers the kind of services you need. Or, if your income is very low, you may qualify for free or low-cost legal help. Check the white pages of your telephone directory for a legal services program such as a legal aid society in your county.
You also can ask your county bar association if its State Bar-certified lawyer referral service offers free legal advice for low-income people or if it can direct you to a no-cost legal services organization.
The purpose of this pamphlet is to provide general information on the law, which is subject to change. If you have a specific legal problem, you may want to consult a lawyer.
Courtesy of The State Bar of California
© 2000 The State Bar of California. The Legal Services Section of the State Bar of California assisted in the revision of this pamphlet.