Knowing your rights as a renter (often referred to as tenant rights) helps protect you from housing discrimination or unfair practices like rent or fee gouging. It also helps ensure you always have a clean, safe place to live and that there's no confusion about which responsibilities are yours and which are your landlord's.
Every state's laws are a little different; read on for details about California's.
While lease agreements tend to be pretty lengthy, we strongly recommend you get yourself a tasty beverage, find a comfortable chair, and read the lease—at least three times. If this is your first time renting or the lease feels especially overwhelming, fear not. We’ll walk you through a couple of things to look out for.
As a renter, you have essentially agreed to pay a monthly rent to the owner of the house or apartment serving as your home. In California, unless the rental agreement states otherwise, the rent is due on the final day of the rental period (i.e. month, week, etc.) (Cal. Civ Code §§ 1947).
While rent is your number one responsibility, there may be other things that you need to take care of depending on what’s stated in your rental agreement/lease. For example:
- Yardwork (Cutting the grass, trimming the trees, etc.)
- Renter insurance
- Cable & Internet
- Snow removal (if applicable)
Depending on how your lease reads, you may be expected to pay for or perform the work yourself. If you’re not comfortable doing so, try to negotiate in advance of signing a lease. Some cities also require landlords to cover the cost of certain utilities so check your city or state website to confirm. It’s okay if you are not comfortable paying for or performing these responsibilities—try and negotiate with the landlord if possible. If you cannot come to an agreement on the terms of the lease agreement, shop around for a home and landlord that is willing to work with you and be flexible.
Your landlord's responsibilities
Your landlord’s responsibilities begin when the lease is signed and continue until shortly after you move out. At a minimum, the landlord is responsible for providing you with an acceptable place to live. This means the rental unit must be, by legal standards, relatively clean and safe. Legally, they are also required to provide a number of disclosures and a written rental agreement. Get ready to read about:
- Utilities - Your landlord must disclose if the utilities are shared between other areas, such as the common area in an apartment complex (Cal. Civ Code §§ 1940.9)
- Mold - Your landlord must disclose knowledge of any mold that exceeds safety limits in that rental unit (Health & Safety Code §§ 26147).
- Demolishing Permit - Your landlord must disclose if they have applied for a permit to demolish the rental unit (Cal. Civ Code §§ 1940.6)
- Pests - Your landlord must disclose any pest control contracts for active pest treatments (Cal. Civ Code §§ 1940.8)
- Smoking - Your landlord must provide all tenants with a written notice if they limit or prohibit smoking in their rental units prior to the tenants signing of the lease agreement, specifically the areas that are restricted (Cal. Civ Code §§ 1947.5)
Once you’ve signed your lease, the landlord must let you move in within 30 days. And once you’ve moved in, your landlord must take care of things like trash and utilities (basically, everything mentioned above under “Renter Responsibilities”) unless they’ve been specifically outlined as your responsibility in the lease. If there’s no language in the rental agreement that specifically requires you, as the renter, to mow the grass outside your rental unit, it is safe to assume that your landlord will take care of it. If there is any confusion about who is responsible for what, it’s a good idea to talk with your landlord before signing the lease.
Rental repairs and maintenance
In general, most landlords want to keep their rental units in decent shape. The longer they delay repairs, the more it costs them in the future. Here's Roost's guide on how to request repairs from your landlord, and here’s what you need to know specifically about California:
- Your landlord must provide 24 hours notice if they need to enter your place to do repairs or maintenance. The only exception is if it’s an emergency like there’s water spilling out of your apartment (Cal. Civ Code §§ 1954).
- If your landlord doesn’t repair something and your place has become unlivable, you can initiate the repair yourself and deduct the cost from what you owe for next month’s rent. The trick is that you can’t deduct more than one month’s rent, or do it more than twice within a 12-month period (Cal. Civ Code §§ 1942).
Who’s usually responsible?
A leak in the roof or ceiling
Paint mistakenly splashed on the walls
Broken steps to the front door
Light bulbs burned out in your unit
Broken water heater or dishwasher
Power outage due to loose wiring
Rental security deposits
California has specific security deposit requirements. While the “standard” security deposit is a month’s rent, the limit is two months’ rent for an unfurnished rental unit. If it’s furnished, your landlord can charge up to three months of rent (Cal. Civ Code §§ 1950.5). (For alternatives to paying a full upfront security deposit, check out companies like Rhino and The Guarantors.) Once you’ve paid your security deposit, your landlord must provide you with a receipt.
When your lease has ended and you move out, expect your security deposit back within 21 days (Cal. Civ Code §§ 1950.5g), unless it’s held up for one of the following legally allowable reasons:
- Unpaid rent
- Cleaning the rental unit
- Cost of repair of damages caused by you
- Replacement or repair of the furniture if the unit was furnished and furniture is beyond normal wear and tear
Must be returned within
2x rent (unfurnished)
21 days of the end of the lease
3x rent (furnished)
21 days of the end of the lease
California is generally a pretty renter-friendly state. If you feel like your landlord has acted in bad faith in regard to your security deposit, you can file a claim for twice the amount you paid (Cal. Civ Code §§ 1950.5g). Read Roost's How to get your security deposit back for additional tips.
Rental agreements: rent increases, payment, and fees
If you are entering into a new rental situation, it’s very important to understand the financial side of your new living arrangement. While most people tend to base their decision on the rent amount, don’t be surprised if your landlord requires you to pay other fees or if they deduct an amount from your security deposit later. That said, they must provide you with an itemized list of those costs if they exceed $125 (Cal. Civ Code §§ 1950.5g). Here are the most common types of costs and fees:
- Security deposit - The “standard” security deposit is a month’s rent, the limit is two months rent for an unfurnished rental unit. If it’s furnished, your landlord can charge up to three months of rent;
- Screening fee - This is allowed. However, the landlord must provide their intention for running background checks and must provide a copy of the reports within 3 days of receipt;
- Late rent fees - These are acceptable in California, but they must be “reasonable” and in compliance with rent control laws;
- Cleaning fee - An amount of money paid to cover shampooing carpets, cleaning unit at end of tenancy, etc. All non-refundable fees for things like cleaning can not be rolled into the refundable security deposit. It must be noted separately.
- Application/reservation fee - California landlords are allowed to charge up to $35 per rental application. This figure is recalculated annually, so it may change over time. Additionally, a landlord is required to refund any amount not used towards the application process.
- Rent increases - While no one likes their rent to go up, landlord’s costs usually go up every year (think property taxes). California has strict guidelines on rent increases. If your landlord wants to increase rent by less than ten percent, a 30-day notice is required. If they plan to increase rent by more than ten percent, they have to let you know 90 days in advance.
- Rent control. Some cities have more detailed rent control measures in place. Here are a few of the major cities with control measures in place (and links to details):
- Pets - Check your lease before you get a pet. California law doesn’t require landlords to accept pets, and if you don’t get permission in advance, it can be considered a violation of your lease and be cause for eviction. Additional pet rent or pet security deposit is not uncommon.
- Emotional support and service animals - If you have a mental or emotional disability, federal laws state landlords must make “reasonable accommodations”, which can include an emotional support or service animal. There are a few exceptions and this tends to be a pretty tricky area for both renters and landlords to navigate together, so be upfront about what you need and follow all required steps. Landlords cannot charge you extra for an emotional support or service animal.
Read Roost's What to know before signing that rental lease for additional tips.
Rent termination and eviction
Once you’ve moved into your rental unit, the place is yours until your lease is up, your landlord terminates the rental agreement early, or you’re evicted. Eviction is an unpleasant process for everyone, so it’s best for you and your landlord to do everything you can to avoid it. Being evicted makes it hard to find housing, can affect your credit, and does not relieve you from paying rent unless the landlord finds someone new to move in.
Your landlord can only evict you under certain circumstances. The most common reasons for eviction are missing rent or violating the lease (unauthorized pets or occupants--things like that). However, they can’t simply change the locks (Cal. Civ Code §§ 789.3), shut off utilities (Cal. Civ Code §§ 789.3), dump your stuff on the front yard and kick you out. They have to give you specific notices:
- Eviction for Nonpayment of Rent - Give you three days’ notice that eviction will proceed. You then have three days to pay the rent to get back on the right track and have the lease agreement reinstated (Cal. Civ Procedure Code §§ 1161(2)).
- Eviction for Violation of Lease Terms - Give you three days’ notice to fix the lease violation before the landlord files for eviction (Cal. Civ Procedure Code §§ 1161(3)).
There are times when your landlord may end your lease early and you have to move out, even if you’ve been paying your rent and are a great renter. For example, if the property has been for sale and a purchase is moving forward, they’d have to give you 30 days’ notice (Cal. Civ Code §§ 1946).
Renting with roommates
Sometimes your roommate situation just doesn’t work out. Unfortunately, you’re both responsible for the lease, and in many ways, you’re both responsible for each other’s actions. Depending on how your rental agreement is written, if your roommate bails, you could be stuck having to pay the full rent on your own. While you can use legal action to go after your former roommate, you may still have to pay full rent when it’s due.
One of the most common questions that arise when there’s a problem with a roommate is whether you can evict them. In short: no. If your roommate’s name is on the lease as a tenant, you cannot kick them out, so sending an eviction notice would be pointless. If your roommate is not on the lease, they may not be considered a tenant, which technically means they don’t have any legal obligations to fulfill in regards to your lease anyway. Sometimes referred to as “subleasing”, here are the three situations where one roommate tends to carry all the liability:
- Only one tenant is on the lease;
- Only one tenant is paying directly to the landlord; or
- One tenant has started living in the unit for a short period of time compared to the full length of the lease.
Rental housing discrimination
Thanks to Fair Housing laws in California, you’re protected from discrimination when applying for rental (42 U.S.C. 3601). This means that the landlord or property manager can’t base their decision any of the following:
- National Origin
- Gender Identity
- Marital Status
- Sexual Orientation
- Presence of Children
- Military/Veteran Status
Despite these protections, some people find a way to use a negative background check or a credit report as cover for discrimination. If you feel like any of the above factors were actually the reason why you were denied a place, you may want to talk with a tenant rights attorney.
A number of states, including California, have stepped up and provided resources to ensure renters can stay in their homes even if they’re struggling to make rent during the COVID-19 pandemic. Governor Gavin Newsom declared a statewide state of emergency and put several policies in place to protect renters from losing their homes. A few of the protections:
- Governor Gavin Newsom has placed moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures to help those in need during this strange time of global pandemic (California COVID-19 Housing Information).
- Reducing or delaying monthly mortgage payments, per an agreement with financial institutions.
- Utility providers are not shutting off services due to non-payment (California Public Utilities Commission information).
You may be able to forego paying rent and not be evicted right now but it doesn’t mean you’re clear of future legal claims against past due rent and dings to your credit. If possible, try to avoid abusing this moratorium at the risk of hurting yourself in the long run.
The Trump administration recently announced a new executive order for a rent moratorium through the end of the 2020 year. The order was put forward by the Centers for Disease Control to help prevent Covid-19 spread. Under the updated directive, families must prove they tried to pay their rent and that eviction would force them into a shelter or close quarters with others. If this covers you, then you’ll need to attest to your situation and a substantial loss of income on a form. Forms are to come available via the CDC website.
The order does not waive any rent debt — it just defers it — still leaving many renters vulnerable. And, it still allows landlords to charge fees, penalties, and interest, according to the draft document posted on September 1st.
The executive order covers more renters than the former CARES Act moratorium which only protected those living in housing with a federally backed mortgage loan, public housing, Section 202 housing for the elderly, Section 811 housing for people with disabilities, rural rental housing, Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher, USDA housing voucher, or VA voucher. That Act protection expired on July 25, 2020.
The executive order covers more renters than the former CARES Act federal moratorium on evictions which only protected those living in housing with a federally backed mortgage loans, public housing, Section 202 housing for the elderly, Section 811 housing for people with disabilities, rural rental housing, Section 8 Housing Choice Voucher, USDA housing voucher, or VA voucher. That Act protection expired on July 25, 2020.
Stay tuned... Congress is currently working on a bill called the CARES Act 2, which could afford more protection for renters if passed.
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If you need some more information, check out some of the resources listed below:
State rules and regulations
- California Civil Code – Landlord-Tenant
- Health & Safety Code - Quality Standards for Landlords
- Business & Professions Code - Pest Control Requirements for Landlords
California Code of Civil Procedure - Process for Eviction
Your renters rights, in your state.
Explore what you need to know.
- Alabama Renters Rights
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- Washington, D.C. Renters Rights
You probably already know that we’re not a law firm, but just to make sure we get this out of the way: We can’t provide any advice or opinions about possible legal rights, remedies, defenses, options, selection of forms, or strategies. And by hanging out with us here at Roost, you agree to our Legal disclaimer.