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Landlord-Tenant Law

Know Your Rights and Responsibilities

The landlord-tenant relationship has the potential to directly affect the financial well-being and quality of life for both owner and renter.

The landlord depends on the rental property for his income and could face financial hardship if tenants don't pay, or if they cause damage to the property. The tenant has to come home to the property every day, so if the landlord does not maintain it properly or provide a safe and quiet environment, it could become an unpleasant place to live.

So, the state of California has established specific landlord-tenant laws to help protect the rights of each.

Habitable conditions

The first step in settling on a rental property - aside from making sure you can afford it and choosing the right features and location - is to visit the property with the landlord. Together, inspect the interior and exterior to identify any needed repairs, as well as to establish the general condition.

It doesn't have to be pretty, but California Civil Code requires that the rental property be fit for human habitation and makes it the landlord's responsibility to ensure that condition is met. This is called the "implied warranty of habitability."

Among the requirements of landlord-tenant law, the rental property must have:

· Adequate weather protection.

· Running water.

· Safe electrical wiring.

· A heating system.

· A toilet, sink and bathtub or shower.

· Deadbolt locks.

· At least one phone jack.

· A locking mail receptacle.

· Smoke detectors.

It also must be clean and sanitary, free of rodents and vermin and be equipped with an adequate number of garbage containers. The state Department of Consumer Affairs offers a free booklet, the California Tenant Book, that explains the requirements in greater detail.

Before signing a lease (link to "rental contracts" article) on rental property, insist that the landlord make any repairs necessary to comply with landlord-tenant law. If he agrees to do any other work, such as cosmetic improvements, get that in writing also.

Landlord and tenant responsibilities

The landlord has the right to require that prospective tenants complete an application and allow him to run a credit check. He can deny a tenant's application if he turns up weak references, poor credit or previous evictions. However, he cannot discriminate based on race, age, or family status.

Once you move in, it's important to remember that, while the law puts the responsibility on the landlord to keep the property maintained, it also assigns certain responsibilities to the tenant. For example, the tenant is expected to keep the unit clean, take out the trash and use all utility fixtures properly. If you cause any damage, you are obligated to get it repaired.

Obviously, you will be expected to pay your rent on time, around the same date every month. You can pay by cash or check. The landlord cannot require that you pay cash, according to state landlord-tenant law, unless you have had a check returned.

For tenants on lease, the rent amount cannot increase over the course of the lease. For tenants on month-to-month rental, the landlord is required to give 30 days notices before rents increase up to 10 percent, and 60 days notice before rents increase more than 10 percent.

While living in the rental property, the tenant has the right to demand that the landlord take whatever steps necessary to maintain the implied warranty of habitability as long as, and this is important, the tenant is current on rent and did not cause or allow someone else to cause the problem.

The tenant should notify the landlord in writing, by certified mail, when repairs need to be made to comply with landlord-tenant law.

Tenant's rights

The tenant has certain options if the landlord does not make the repairs in a reasonable time. They are:

· Repair and deduct - the tenant can pay for the repairs and take the cost out of the rent owed to the landlord. This only applies in cases affecting habitability, such as a hole in the roof, and the amount cannot be more than one month's rent.

· Abandonment - the tenant can simply move out of the unit, without assuming liability for any remaining rent or lease terms. Again, only in cases affecting habitability and only after written notification to the landlord.

· Rent withholding - the tenant can refuse to pay rent until the landlord makes sufficient repairs to meet the requirements of landlord-tenant law. This applies only in the most serious cases affecting the tenant's health and safety. For example, an untreated rat infestation or unrepaired heating system failure.

Landlord-tenant law also gives the tenant the right to file suit against the landlord in small claims or California superior court to recover damages in the most serious instances. "Special damages" can range up to $5,000 and include expenses such as the cost of staying in a motel because the unit is uninhabitable.

Before taking any of these actions, it is a good idea to consult a real estate attorney. What you consider a violation of the implied warranty of habitability and what the landlord considers a violation may be very different, and an attorney can help you figure out whether you are in the right.

Landlord's rights

Landlords also have certain remedies under California landlord-tenant law when they no longer wish to rent to a particular tenant, for reasons other than retaliation over repair requests or discrimination, or when the tenant does not pay rent, causes damage or does not follow other requirements of the rental property agreement.

The landlord can give a 30 or 60 day notice of termination on month-to-month rentals, which means the tenant has to vacate within that time. For terminations, the landlord does not have to give a specific reason.

A landlord also can evict a tenant for non-payment of rent or other violation of the rental agreement. The landlord has to serve the tenant with a 3-day notice of eviction. The landlord cannot lock the tenant out of the unit or try to force the tenant out by disconnecting utilities. If the tenant doesn't reach an agreement with the landlord or move out by the end of the third day, the landlord can file what is called an "unlawful detainer lawsuit" in California superior court.

Eviction process

The court will give the tenant five days to file a response. The tenant can move out or request a hearing if he believes the landlord does not have grounds for an eviction. The hearing usually is held within 20 days of filing a response.

Fail to respond, or lose the hearing, and the judge will issue an order for eviction. The tenant will then have five more days to move out voluntarily. Otherwise, the local sheriff's department can physically remove the tenant, change the locks and seize the tenant's property.

Once that process is completed, the landlord can resume control over the rental property.

The tenant will have 18 days to reclaim anything left in the unit, after which it can be sold. The landlord also can ask the court to issue a judgment against the tenant for any back rent.

An eviction can be a costly and difficult process for both sides. You should always check with an attorney specializing in landlord-tenant law before it becomes necessary.


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