Landlords and tenants alike are often unsure of their rights and responsibilities under California law regarding repairs to rental property. Can a tenant make repairs and deduct the costs of the repairs from the rent? In most instances, the answer lies in the tenant’s lease.
Repair provisions vary from lease to lease. In some leases, the tenant takes the property “AS-IS” and is responsible for repairing most damage that arises after the lease begins. In other leases, virtually all repairs not caused by the tenant’s negligence or wrongful conduct are the landlord’s responsibility. Usually, absent a specific lease provision allowing it, a tenant may not repair and deduct. Thus, the first thing that landlords and tenants need to do when a repair issue arises is to examine the applicable lease provisions regarding repairing damage.
In some limited circumstances, California laws do afford residential tenants the right to repair “untenantable conditions” at their own expense and, within specific limits, to deduct those repair costs from their rent. However, this remedy is subject to several restrictions. The repairs can only be made to fix certain types of conditions. Also, before making repairs, the tenant must give the landlord notice and a reasonable opportunity to make the repairs. Finally, repair costs cannot exceed the value of one month’s rent and a tenant can only use the repair and deduct remedy twice in any 12-month period.
California law permits tenants to repair and deduct only for “dilapidations rendering the premises untenantable which the landlord ought to repair” and identifies eight specific categories of defects as “dilapidations.” These defects include inadequate waterproofing and weather protection of roofs and exterior walls; inadequate or nonconforming plumbing or gas facilities; a water supply not capable of producing hot and cold running water to appropriate fixtures or not connected to an approved sewage disposal system; and heating facilities and electrical lights which did not conform with applicable law when installed or which are not maintained in good working order.
Other statutory defects include buildings and grounds that, when rented, are not clean, sanitary, and free from accumulations of debris, filth, rubbish, garbage, rodents and vermin; failure to have adequate garbage and rubbish receptacles; and failure to keep floors, stairways, and railings in good repair.
The right to repair and deduct cannot be used to repair a condition caused by a tenant’s own carelessness. Thus, a landlord is not responsible for repairing a condition caused by a tenant’s negligent or intentional act, even if that condition may come within the legal definition of an “untenantable dilapidation.” Also, if a tenant makes rental repair deductions that do not fall within the legal criteria of the “repair and deduct” laws or the repair provisions of his lease, the landlord might have a cause of action against the tenant for failure to pay rent that could result in an eviction or a damage award. For these reasons, it is equally important to both tenants and landlords to confirm before any deductions for repairs are made from rent, that those repairs and deductions come either within the terms of the applicable lease or within the provisions of the California Civil Code that authorize deductions for repairs of untenantable conditions.