Moving into a new home is an exciting time. It represents a fresh start, something new. Maybe you’ve moved from out of state and your heart is racing at the prospect of living where the sun always shines. You find the perfect house or apartment. The landlord seemed ok. You put down a deposit, sign the lease and pay the first month’s rent. All that’s left is to move in to your new home. The day finally comes. You’re full of anticipation as the moving truck arrives. You put the key in the lock and open the door. And just as you hoped: it looks like they’ve just finished filming an episode of Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.
If this did NOT happen to you, read on.
California law sets out certain minimum standards that residential housing must meet if it’s going to be rented out to tenants. Essentially the house or apartment must be habitable and safe. There must be, amongst other things, effective waterproofing; safe plumbing and gas facilities; hot and cold running water; proper heating and electricity; a sanitary environment; and locks conforming to California legal requirements.
Unless the tenant was responsible for creating any of these conditions, the landlord must ensure the conditions are met at the time of the lease, and must oversee any necessary repairs.
But what should you do if you notify the landlord that the property is unsafe or uninhabitable and he doesn’t do anything about it? The landlord in most circumstances has a 30 day grace period to make repairs after being notified by the tenant (though sometimes he must act sooner). After that, the tenant can arrange for the repairs to be done and deduct the cost from the rent owed. OR the tenant can simply leave the property and will not be liable for any more rent, even if the lease term has not yet expired. This is known as “constructive eviction” in California law (ie because the landlord failed to provide adequate living conditions, he effectively left you with no choice but to leave).
The important point to remember here is: before you get the repairs made yourself or decide to leave the property, you need to be sure that the property really is uninhabitable. If you say it is uninhabitable but a court later finds that not to be the case, you may still be liable to the landlord for rent due under the lease, even the portion of the rent that relates to the period after you moved out.
How will you know if the property is uninhabitable? Every case is different. Sometimes it will be obvious. If there is no running water, it’s uninhabitable. Other cases may not be quite so straightforward. If you’re unsure, you may wish to consult a lawyer about your options before taking any action.
If you would rather get the landlord to do the right thing and make the repairs rather than move out, you may want to get a lawyer to send the landlord a demand letter on your behalf. If the landlord hasn’t been listening to you, having a lawyer send a letter outlining your demands increases the chances that you will be taken seriously. You don’t have to fight alone.