Repairs at Your Rental – Whose Job Is It, Anyways?

Landlord & Tenant Law by Kelly P. Sorensen, Esq.

As many housing providers and tenants have experienced when leasing a residential property, sometimes issues pop up in the property that require repair. Some might be minor- such as fixing the pilot light on a stove burner- and others larger- such as remediating mold in a property. But whose job is it at the end of the day to make these repairs?

Without question, California law requires housing providers to be responsible for making repairs to the property when the tenant raises the issue, and to do so within a reasonable time frame. But what is considered a reasonable time? Unfortunately, the law does not define what a “reasonable” timeframe is but completed within 30 days of receipt of the complaint is generally considered to be sufficient. There are a limited number of instances where immediate (24 hours or so) repair is necessary, including issue with hot water, locking doors/windows, etc. Practically speaking, though, for most any issue at the property; the sooner, the better to help eliminate any cause for concern or delay.

A housing provider’s’ duty is codified in Civil Code § 1941.1, which requires a housing provider to provide a habitable property to the tenant. If the housing provider does not provide any of the following to the tenant, then the property is considered uninhabitable and must be addressed immediately. And in some cases, may require the housing provider to temporarily vacate the property to fully address the defect as some repairs cannot be performed safely with the tenant inside the unit (see Civil Code § 1946.2(b)(2)(D)).

What must a housing provider make sure they provide in the property? Here is a list of the basic necessities of a property to be considered habitable:

  • Effective waterproofing
  • Functioning plumbing
  • Cold and hot water
  • Functioning heat
  • Functioning electrical
  • Clean and sanitary building and grounds free of pest
  • Available trash receptacles
  • Safe stairways and handrails
  • Available mail receptacle (Civil Code § 1941.1(a)(1)-(9)).

Does this mean tenants are not responsible for the property? Of course not; tenants, like housing providers, have statutory duties as well as contractual duties via the lease agreement. Tenants are required to alert their landlord, or property management, of defects in the property that need repair. Furthermore, Civil Code § 1941.2 requires the tenant to keep the property clean and sanitary, free of garbage and rubbish, to properly use the electrical, gas, and plumbing fixtures in the property, to use the property as designated (i.e. to sleep and reside in the property), and to prevent third parties or guests from destroying, defacing, or removing any part of the property.

Housing Provider, what do you do if your tenant won’t return your calls about scheduling the repairs or prevents your contractors from entering the property to make the repairs? Civil Code § 1954(a)(2) permits a housing provider to enter the property after posting a 24-hour written notice of entry to make necessary repairs. What does that mean practically? Housing provider, if you are unsuccessful at coordinating with the tenant to schedule a time for the vendor or contractor to make the repairs, then post a notice on the front door of the property notifying tenant that in 24+ hours, i.e. a specified date and time, that you and your vendor/contractor will be entering the property to make the repairs.

Tenant, what do you do if your housing provider is not responding to your repair requests or isn’t addressing them within a reasonable time? You have a few options.

First, you can “repair and deduct” per Civil Code § 1942. You may hire a vendor/contractor to make the repairs and can deduct up to one month’s rent from the rent as compensation for having made the repairs. Note that this remedy is only available twice in any twelve month period, so use sparingly.

Second, depending on where your property is located, you may be able to report your housing provider’s failure to timely repair the defects with your local housing department (either City or County). The local housing department may offer mediation services or even hold a hearing to address the housing provider’s failure to make the necessary repairs in a timely fashion. The primary benefit to this is that most local departments offer these services free of charge. For example, see Palo Alto’s program here:

Third, you can withhold rent for an amount proportionate to the non-use of the property due to the defect/repair issue. For example, if the guest bathroom toilet is completely non-operational due to poor plumbing, you can withhold the proportional amount of rent to that of the guest bathroom in the property. As you can imagine, this is tough to calculate and should only be used in extreme circumstances, not to mention an area ripe for dispute. If used for this purpose, your housing provider could file an unlawful detainer complaint (after service of a 3 day notice to pay or quit) and you will have to present evidence to support your defense for nonpayment of rent. Thankfully, Courts recognize valid habitability issues as a complete defense to an unlawful detainer, with limited exceptions.

Finally, in extreme circumstances where the property is in violation of Civil Code § 1941.1 and your housing provider still will not make the necessary repairs, you may break the lease agreement early and make a claim against the housing provider for wrongful or constructive eviction. At the end of the day, communication is necessary for all parties involved. Rather than be adversaries, work with each other to report issues in the property and make the necessary repairs to provide a comfortable, safe, and habitable property.  

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