As a landlord you have many duties – two of the most important being to make timely repairs and maintain your rental property.  While it is not difficult to fulfill these duties, it is good to have an understanding of what exactly they entail and to be familiar with the notice requirements affecting your right to enter your property to carry them out.

The following is not a substitute for legal advice and should not be construed as such.  If you have legal questions your best bet is to consult with a licensed, experienced landlord-tenant attorney.

A Landlord Must Provide a Habitable Property

A rental unit must be fit to live in, that is, it must be habitable.  In order to be habitable, the property must be fit for humans to live in and substantially comply with state and local building and health codes that materially affect a tenant’s health and safety. (Green v. Superior Court (1974); Civil Code Sections 1941)  In plain English, a rental property must have adequate heating, water, electricity, cleanliness, and must be structurally sound.

Duty to Maintain and Repair

A landlord is responsible for any maintenance or repair work necessary to keep a rental livable under the warranty of habitability.  That is, a landlord is responsible to maintain or repair conditions that substantially affect a tenant’s health and safety, such as a leaky roof or broken heater.  For less serious repairs, the law allows the lease or rental agreement to shift the duty to maintain and repair to the tenant as long as all parties agree.  Regardless of the lease, tenants are legally required to take reasonable care of their rental units and common areas and are also responsible to repair damage caused by them or their pets.  (Civ. Code Sections 1929; 1941.2)

The following are examples of common maintenance and repair issues and who is usually responsible for them:

Pest infestation

Landlord: Landlord is required to provide pest control and remedy any problem that led to the infestation, which must be fixed within a reasonable time.  (California generally considers 30 days to be reasonable.)  If the infestation is tenant-induced (e.g. cockroaches from filth), the landlord is still responsible for getting rid of the insects but can pass the cost onto the tenant under certain situations.

Tenant: If an ant infestation begins after the tenant moves in, the rental agreement can shift responsibility to the tenant to remedy. For example, our leases give tenant’s two week before the responsibility is transfered to them.

Leaks

Landlord:  Is responsible to repair the leak unless it was caused by the tenant. Leaks should be fixed as soon as possible since they can cause significant damage.

Appliances

Refrigerator due to cooling: Landlord responsible to maintain.
Refrigerator filters: Tenant responsible to replace as needed.
Stovetop burners: Landlord responsible to maintain.
Clogged dishwasher: Tenant, since it is usually the result of the tenant’s failure to properly rinse dishes.
Garbage disposal: Tenant, since it is usually the result of overloading the disposal and/or running it without water.

Landscape

Landlord: The landlord is responsible to fix all broken irrigation lines and sprinkler heads (unless caused by tenant). We recommend the landlord to hire a gardener to maintain and oversee the landscape making sure the tenant is properly watering the plants.

Tenant: If the lease agreement requires the tenant to maintain the landscape, the landlord is still required to fix any broken irrigation lines not caused by tenant.

Smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors

Landlord: The landlord is required to install and maintain smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors. Landlords are also responsible to change the batteries.

Tenant: Most lease agreements require the tenant to test these systems and notify the landlord if not working properly.

Misc. Items

Light bulbs: Tenant responsible to replace as needed.
Fan: Landlord, because usually due to a malfunction not caused by the tenant.
Drains: Tenant, since the clog is usually the result of overloading.

What Can Happen if you Don’t Make Required Repairs

A required repair is one that keeps the unit livable as well as what you are bound to perform under the lease or rental agreement. You are upholding your duty to repair as long as you make the repair within a reasonable amount of time after being notified of the problem.  Although California law considers 30 days to be a reasonable amount of time, certain issues can shorten that time substantially.  (For instance, heating and plumbing problems should be handled within 24 hours.)  It is generally good practice to have less severe issues handled in 48 hours if possible, just so there are no questions as to whether your response was reasonable.

If you fail to make a repair in a reasonable amount of time a tenant has the right to do any of the following:

Repair and Deduct

This remedy allows a tenant to make the repairs himself and deduct the costs to repair from the rent, up to one month’s rent.  This remedy is only applicable to repairs of conditions that substantially affect a tenant’s health and safety i.e. those that substantially violate the warranty of habitability.  Examples would include a leaky roof or a broken furnace during the winter.

Abandonment

If the issue affects the warranty of habitability, the tenant can elect to move out and end the lease agreement without penalty.  However, before resulting to this remedy, the tenant must first give the landlord notice of the issue and reasonable time to cure the problem.  As mentioned above, 30 days is generally considered reasonable, but for a more serious issue, such as non-working toilets, a reasonable amount of time could be as little as two days.

Withholding Rent

By law, a tenant can stop paying some or all of the rent if a landlord fails to fix serious defects that violate the warranty of habitability.   In order to use this remedy, the repairs must be more serious than would justify the repair and deduct or abandonment remedies, that is, the defects must be substantial and threaten the tenant’s health and safety.

Contacting the Authorities

If the repair or maintenance issue is one that violates health and safety codes, your tenant might contact the local authorities and report it.  If inspectors come out to the property and find a problem you will not only be ordered to fix it you might also be fined or otherwise penalized.

Notice Required Before Entry to Repair

California law requires 24 hours written notice before entering a tenant-occupied property unless it is for an emergency.   (Civil Code Section 1954)  With proper notice, a landlord may enter the property, even against a tenant’s wishes, as long as the entry occurs during “normal business hours.”  The notice must state the date, approximate time, and reason for entry.  Written notice may be personally delivered to the tenant, left with someone of suitable age at the residence, or mailed.  And of course, a landlord may enter the unit at any time in case of an emergency or with the tenant’s permission.

Consequences for Failing to Give Notice

As a California landlord it is important you understand the notice laws regarding entry, as repeated violations of a tenant’s privacy can cause legal headaches in court or even result in trespass charges.  Your San Diego property management company understands these laws and can help you understand them as well.

Conclusion

As a landlord, you are the one ultimately responsible for providing a safe, livable rental for your tenants.  The biggest part of keeping a rental livable is staying on top of maintenance and repairs.  While the law allows you quite a bit of time to repair non-emergency issues, it is good practice to try and have repairs done within a couple of days so that you do not have to worry about running afoul of the law or dealing with an angry tenant.  And don’t forget, in discharging your duties to repair and maintain you must remember to give proper notice.

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