California Landlord Tenant Laws You Should Know

Because landlord laws and rights vary so much from state to state, it’s often difficult for landlords and investors to know all the laws that apply to each of their properties. This guide provides you with the landlord laws you need to know, laid out in a way that is easy to understand.

Finding a Tenant

Leaving your unit vacant is costly; however, you should not automatically let to the first person who applies. It’s important to screen tenants to prevent costly expenditures throughout the lease term that could have been predicted and avoided. You must be sure to follow all California laws regarding finding a tenant, or you may end up sued by a tenant you turned down.

Tenant Screening

The laws regarding tenant screenings break down into three components: tenant’s income, credit checks, and screening fees.

Tenant’s Income

You can ask about a tenant’s income and source of income; however, you cannot discriminate against a tenant based on what they tell you.

Credit Check

If you run a credit check on a tenant, you can use it to determine whether to rent to the tenant; however, you are required to tell the tenant in writing if their credit report is part of the reason or the reason why you decide not to rent to them. You must also give the prospective tenant the name, address, and phone number of the credit reporting agency and a statement assuring the tenant they have a right to get a free credit report and dispute the accuracy of the information in it.[1]

Screening Fee

You can charge a potential tenant a screening fee to screen them if it is less than or equal to what you actually pay to screen them.[2] If you pay for a credit check on the client and charge them a screening fee, you need to give them a copy of the credit check and a receipt for what they paid. You can use this calculator to find out what the maximum screening fee you can charge as of today is. Your screening fee cannot be more than what $30 was worth in 1998. In the calculator, input $30 and the date January 1998. Then add the current year to calculate what that amount is worth today. Your maximum limit depends on the current Consumer Price Index, which accounts for inflation. For example, as of May 2017, $45.43 is the maximum screening fee you can charge. The calculator will not have data on the current month when you use it. So, you should use one or two months earlier than today’s date.

Occupancy Control

You can set up standards for the number of people per square foot of your property; however, you must consistently enforce the standards you set. For example, if you would let five adults rent your property, you cannot deny a family with three children.[3]

Fees You Can Charge

There are several fees you can charge a potential tenant even before they move into your property. Some of those fees are legal, like a holding deposit or a screening fee, as discussed above. However, you are not allowed to charge key money.

Holding Deposit

If a tenant is not moving into your apartment yet, and is, therefore, unable to pay first month’s rent, you can charge a holding deposit to hold the apartment for them until they’re ready to move in.[4]

Key Money

You cannot charge or accept “key money.”[5] Key money is basically a bribe paid by the tenant to the landlord so that the tenant gets the property. If you are found doing this, you’ll be fined three times whatever the tenant paid.

Writing the Lease

If you are leasing to someone who speaks Spanish, Chinese, Tagalog, Vietnamese, or Korean, you must give the tenant a copy of the lease translated into the language they speak.[6]

The Fair Housing Act

You are not allowed to ask a potential tenant questions about race, color, religion, sex, national origin, familial status, or any disability.[7]

Additionally, the Unruh Civil Rights Act and the California Fair Employment and Housing Act prevent landlords from asking questions about sexual orientation, marital status, source of income, gender identity, gender expression, ancestry and/or age, in addition to the characteristics already outlined by the Fair Housing Act. The law is not limited to these explicitly stated characteristics. The California Supreme Court decided that the Unruh Civil Rights Act applies to any type of arbitrary discrimination.

You cannot deny a tenant rent because of any of these reasons or because of any personal characteristics, like appearance or sexual orientation.[8]

The Fair Housing Act protects tenants from discrimination in any process pertaining to finding a home. According to the Department of Housing and Urban Development, landlords cannot do any of the following on the basis of personal characteristics:[9]

  • Refuse to rent or sell a home.
  • Make housing unavailable.
  • Set different terms, conditions, or privileges for sale or rental of a home.
  • Provide different housing services or facilities.
  • Falsely deny that a home is available for inspection, sale or rental.
  • Advertise or make any statement that indicates a limitation or preference based on national origin, religion, sex, disability, or the presence of children.
  • Threaten, coerce, intimidate or interfere with someone exercising their fair housing rights.

Additionally, if your tenant has a physical or mental disability, you must:

  • Pay to make reasonable modifications to the property so that the tenant can use the home. You can require that the tenant change it back at the end of the lease.
  • Make reasonable accommodations to rules, policies, practices or services, if the tenant needs them to live in the home.

If your property qualifies as housing for the elderly, you can restrict tenants to those that meet the age requirement.

Disclosures

California law requires you to be open with your tenant about unit conditions that could be harmful to their health, like lead-based paint and mold.

Lead-Based Paint

While you’re not required to remove lead-based paint, you are required to let the tenant know that it is there. If your property was built before 1978, you need to tell the tenant that it’s very likely that the unit is painted with lead-based paint before they sign the lease. As a landlord, you are obligated to tell your tenants about this before they sign the lease. You need to provide the tenant with:[10]

  • A pamphlet about identifying and controlling lead-based paint hazards.
  • Any information about other units or common spaces that have lead-based paint or lead-based paint hazards.

Mold

You must tell a tenant if there is mold in your building that poses a risk to their health.[11] Mold is tiny organisms or fungi that grow inside in damp conditions.

Cigarette Smoking

You can prohibit your tenants from smoking cigarettes or other tobacco products on your property.[12] However, you must specify the exact areas on your property where smoking is prohibited if the lessee has not previously occupied your unit.

You need to give your tenant written notice of a change in your lease if you plan to make your unit non-smoking and your tenant moved in before January 1, 2012, when the law became effective.

Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault, Stalking, and Elder Abuse

If a tenant gives you information about a previous tenancy terminated because of domestic/dating/sexual violence, stalking, or elder abuse or if your tenant terminates tenancy with you because they are a victim of domestic/dating/sexual violence, stalking, or elder abuse, you cannot disclose that to a third party unless the tenant consents in writing to the disclosure or the disclosure is required by law or order of the court because it is confidential.

Security Deposit

A security deposit can be up to three month’s rent, for a furnished apartment, and two month’s rent for an unfurnished apartment.

Security Deposit Refund

So long as the property is not damaged and the tenant does not owe rent, you must send the tenant their security deposit within 21 days of when they leave your property.[13]

Keeping the Deposit

A landlord can keep a tenant’s security deposit for:[14]

  • Unpaid rent
  • Cleaning the apartment, so it’s in the same condition as it was when the tenant first moved in
  • Repair of damages, other than normal wear and tear, caused by the tenant
  • The cost of restoring or replacing furniture or other items of personal property that were not caused by normal wear and tear

If you keep a security deposit for any of the above reasons, you must send the tenants an itemized statement of the amount you spent of their security deposit. If the amount is less than $126, you do not need to send any of the receipts or estimates. A tenant can also sign an agreement when you give them 30- or 60-day notice that waives their right to receive these receipts. Regardless of circumstance, you will always need to send the tenant an itemized statement and the remainder of their deposit within 21 days after they leave your property. This statement can be sent alone if no security deposit is being returned, or with the amount to be returned.

If you did the work yourself…

The statement should describe the work that you or your employees did, how many hours you spent working on it, and the reasonable hourly rate of your work.

If you hired a business to do the work…

You need to give the tenant the business’ invoice and it needs to include contact information for the business.

If you are deducting materials or supplies…

You need to send the tenant a receipt for the supplies. If you buy the supply in bulk, you need to document the cost with the vendor’s list price.

If the repairs cannot be made in 21 days…

You need to give the tenant a good faith estimate of how much the supplies or information will cost. You can deduct that estimate from the cost of security deposit. If you are waiting for a business to have availability to do repairs or for supplies to come in, you must provide the tenant with the contact information for the business or supplier.

Once the repairs have been made, you have 14 days to give the tenant an itemized receipt for the amount you deducted and any surplus security deposit refund they are entitled to. You must send any security deposit refund and receipts to the tenant’s new address if they provided you with one. Otherwise, you can send the information to the property they moved out of. If you were not required to send receipts, estimates, or invoices for repairs made and cleaning done, the tenant can still request them when they receive your itemized statement, in which case, you’ll have 14 days to provide them to the tenant.

Returning the Deposit

So long as the property is not damaged and the tenant does not owe rent, you must send the tenant their security deposit within 21 days of when they leave your property. If you do not return the deposit in 21 days or any of the other required information, the tenant is entitled to receive the deposit back in full.[15]

Initial Inspections

A tenant can ask you to perform an initial inspection before their tenancy ends so that they know what your concerns are. The tenant can then attempt to make the repairs or clean dirty areas of the property before moving out. The point is that your tenant can make the repairs and not have money deducted from their security deposit for them.

If the tenant requests an initial inspection, you must do one unless you’ve given a 3-day eviction notice. You need to tell the tenant that they have the right to the inspection within a reasonable amount of time after written termination of the lease so that they can request it. The inspection then must take place within two weeks of when the tenant vacates the property. The tenant and landlord must work hard to find a convenient time for both parties. You must give the tenant 48-hour notice, even if you’ve agreed on a time, unless the tenant does not want to do the inspection anymore or if you have both agreed in writing to waive the 48-hour notice requirement.

After the inspection, you must give the tenant your estimate for how much the repairs will cost and a copy of the sections of California’s laws about security deposits. After the tenant moves out, you can charge them for anything they did not fix, anything that happened after your initial inspection and anything you could not see during the inspection because your tenant’s stuff was in the way.

Buying a Property With Existing Tenants

If you’ve purchased a property with tenants, the previous owner must transfer security deposits to you. They can make deductions from the deposit. You are not allowed to charge a new deposit simply because you did not get the security deposits from the last landlord. You can only increase the security deposit if the lease says you can, or if the tenant is on a month-to-month contract. If a tenancy ends, you must return the net security deposit minus any deductions to the tenant, even if the former landlord did not transfer the security deposit to you. You’re technically both responsible for it, but if the previous owner cannot be found, the burden rests with you.

Collecting Rent

Rent is due at the end of the month.[16] You need to give your tenant the opportunity to pay by a means other than cash or electronic transfer. The other option, which is likely by check, can be revoked if your tenant gives you a check that does not clear or asks you to put a stop payment on a check. However, you cannot revoke the option for more than three months. If a tenant cannot pay you in full, you can take partial payment and, still, evict the tenant. If the tenant does not pay in full, they’re violating the lease. The law allows you to evict anyone who violates the lease.[17] For more information about evicting tenants read through the “Ending or Renewing the Lease” section of this guide.

Increasing Rent

Should you choose to increase rent, California law requires that you give a tenant at least 30-days advance notice in writing, if the rent increase is 10 percent or less, according to California Law. If the rent is by more than 10 percent, you must give the tenant 60-days advance notice in writing. You can only increase rent for periodic rental agreements, where there is not a total number of weeks or months that the tenancy will last. If you mail the written notice by priority mail, add five days to the advance the tenant needs to be given. Unless the lease specifically says rent can be increased, it cannot be increased for leases longer than 30 days.

Stop Paying Rent

A tenant can stop paying rent if a landlord does not fix serious defects that violate the implied warranty or habitability, for example, if the roof collapses or if there are lots of rats and/or roaches.[18] A tenant can use this remedy so long as the damage threatens their health or safety, they did not cause the defect, they have told you to make the repairs and you have not in a reasonable amount of time.

Problem Solving

Even the best tenants can call you with problems. For example, normal wear and tear can happen to any tenant and for the most part, it is your responsibility to make the repair. Problems as simple as that have laws attached to them in California and most other states. Knowing the regulations will help keep you from accidentally getting stuck in court with your tenant.

Repairs

As the landlord, you are legally responsible for making sure your property abides by all local building and health codes. The burden of your tenant living in a habitable home falls on your shoulders; therefore, you must fix anything that makes your property unlivable, like A/C, plumbing and electricity. However, some repairs that you need to make are less obvious. For example, you must make sure all parts of the building and grounds are habitable; thus, it’s your responsibility to take care of rats or other vermin in the garage or garden and make sure that those locations are not filthy. Read through California Civil Code Section 1941.1 for a complete list of repairs that must be made for a property to remain tenantable.

Your tenant is responsible for fixing any damages caused by themselves, their family, or their pets. So, while it’s your responsibility to ensure your tenants have a working toilet, it’s their responsibility to not flush large objects down the toilet. If your tenant has done something extreme to make the property unlivable, for example, destroying the plumbing or electrical units, it’s not your responsibility to fix it. The tenant cannot keep rent from you because the property is unlivable if they caused the damage that made the property unlivable. The tenant is also responsible for fixing things that fall into the “amenities” category, for example, a pool, a dishwasher or a refrigerator, unless your contract says otherwise.

If the tenant notifies you of a repair that needs to be made to make the property tenantable again, and you do not resolve the problem within 30 days, the tenant has the right to repair the problem and deduct the expenses from their rent. This is true so long as the repairs do not cost more than one month’s rent and the repairs were not made because of unreasonable damage they caused. The tenant also has the option to just move out after 30 days.

Tenant Privacy

A landlord can enter an apartment only if there is an emergency; the tenant has moved out or abandoned the unit; to make necessary or agreed upon repairs or improvements; to show the unit to prospective tenants, lenders, or buyers; if a court order permits the landlord to enter; or if the tenant has a waterbed that needs to be inspected.[19] If your situation falls under the approved reasons for entering your tenant’s home, you still need to give your tenant advanced written notice and enter between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. on a weekday. The law considers 24 hours to be enough notice.

However, the landlord can enter without advanced notice for an emergency; if the tenant has moved out or abandoned the apartment; if the tenant is present and consents to entry; and if the tenant and landlord agreed to have repairs made and that the landlord could enter on an approximate date and time.

Attorney Fees

In California, the lease designates who pays attorneys fees when the court rules. You and your tenant must agree within the lease whether the loser of a court ruling pays attorney fees or if both parties are responsible for their own attorney fees.

Safety Obligations

California requires you to take precautions regarding door locks to keep your tenants safe. These protocols are not just helpful for your tenant. They help keep your unit safe from damage too.

Additionally, your property needs to have a telephone jack inside of it.[20]

Door Locks

The doors on your property must have deadbolts, except for sliding glass doors. You must have window locks or some other form of window security.[21] You must be sure that these locks do not interfere with any part of local fire and safety codes. You will need to change the locks on the apartment if your tenant takes out a restraining order on someone and asks you to change the locks. If your tenant changes the locks on their own, they need to notify you and give you the new key within 24 hours of the change.[22] Your tenant is responsible for making sure the lock is as good or better than the old lock.

Ending or Renewing a Lease

Whether you are ending a lease amicably or angrily, there are certain legal procedures you should follow in California to be sure it ends smoothly.

Tenant Moving at the End of the Lease

At the end of a lease term, the tenant can choose to move out or to continue the lease, if the landlord agrees. If a tenant continues to pay rent and stay in the property after the lease end, and if you continue to collect the rent, the tenant is under a month-to-month contract with all the provisions of the previous lease, except for length. If the tenant does not move and you do not want to collect their rent, you can immediately file for eviction of the tenant. If your tenant is using the Section 8 voucher program and you decide not to renew their lease, you must give 90-days advanced notice. At the end of the 90 days, if the tenant has not left, you may evict the tenant.

Ending a Periodic Tenancy

A tenant with a periodic tenancy agreement needs to give you written notice equal to the time between rental payments. For example, if the tenant pays you every 60 days, they need to give you 60-days advanced notice before ending their periodic agreement.

Unless your contract specifies a different time frame, your tenant also needs to pay the first 10 days of the month after they move on a prorated basis. The only exception is if the tenant moves out before those 10 days are over and if you rent the property to another tenant who pays rent during those 10 days. You can also be responsible for ending a periodic tenancy. If all residents of the unit have lived in the unit for more than a year, the tenant is required to give you 60-days written notice before ending a periodic tenancy.

However, if any tenant has lived in the rental for less than a year or if the landlord is contracted to sell the rental unit to someone who will live in it for more than a year, you only need to give 30-days advance written notice.[23] The tenant must leave the residency by the end of the 30th day or 60th day in both situations.

Eviction Notices

You can evict a tenant with only 3-days advanced notice for the following reasons:[24]

  • Failure to pay rent
  • Lease violation
  • Material damage of the property
  • Use of the property for unlawful reasons
  • Drugs
  • Domestic violence, sexual assaulting, or stalking another tenant
  • Dogfighting or cockfighting
  • Unlawful conduct with weapons or ammunition

If the tenant does not leave, you may proceed with an unlawfully detained lawsuit.

Taking an Eviction to Court

To evict a tenant, you must file and win an unlawful detainer lawsuit. In most cases, the tenant has five days to respond to the lawsuit. The judge will likely hear the case within 20 days.[25] You must evict through a lawsuit. You cannot change the locks on the unit’s doors or turn off utilities, remove outside doors, or take a tenant’s belongings to force a tenant to leave.

If the court finds the tenant has a good defense…

If the court finds the tenant has a good defense, the tenant will not be evicted. Additionally, if the contract has an attorney fee clause and the tenant was represented by an attorney, you must compensate your tenant the cost of the attorney.

If the court decides in your favor…

If the court decides in your favor, the court will issue a writ of possession, which orders the sheriff to remove the tenant from the rental unit. The tenant has five days to leave before sheriff interference. The court might award you with any unpaid rent, damages, court costs, attorney’s fees, and even damages. You need to deliver the writ of possession to the sheriff so that they could inform the tenant with a 5-day notice. If the tenant does not file a written response to your complaint, you can ask the court for a default judgment.

Retaliatory Eviction

The law assumes that you are evicting your tenant out of spite or for revenge if your tenant has exercised one or more of these rights in the last six months:[26]

  • Used the repair and deduct remedy.
  • Complained about the rental unit’s condition to the landlord or a public agency after the landlord was given notice.
  • Filed a lawsuit or began arbitration because of the rental unit’s condition.
  • Caused an appropriate public agency to inspect the rental unit or issue the landlord a citation.

Meaning, your tenant can use retaliatory eviction as a defense against you evicting them if they have done any of the above within the last 180 days.

You can still evict the tenant if they owe you money.

But you cannot otherwise evict the tenant, increase rent, or decrease services.

It is possible to evict a tenant who has done one of the above in the last 180 days. A tenant can only use retaliatory eviction as a defense against eviction once every year.

So, if your eviction has been denied because of retaliatory eviction, you can take the tenant to court again. This time, they cannot use retaliatory eviction as a defense.

However, if you are found guilty of retaliatory eviction, you will be liable for actual damages sustained by the tenant, punitive damages between $100 and $2,000 and attorney fees if you or the tenant requested they be awarded before the trial.

Military Tenants

Tenants who are part of the military or who join the military after signing the lease can end the lease at any time because of military orders that require the tenant to be deployed or change station for more than 90 days.[27] The tenant pays for any days of the month after their deployment or move on a prorated basis. If the service member paid in advance, you must refund the excess money.

Domestic Violence, Sexual Assault, Stalking, or Elder Abuse

Your tenant may inform you that they are a victim of domestic/dating/sexual violence, stalking, or elder abuse, which is grounds for the victim to terminate their tenancy.[28]

The tenant must give you the notice in writing and attach proof of the incident. The proof can be one of the following:

  • A copy of a temporary restraining order, emergency protective order, or a protective order
  • A copy of a written report by a police officer stating that the tenant has filed a report alleging that they are a victim of domestic/dating/sexual violence, stalking, or elder abuse
  • Documentation from a qualified third party based on information received by that third party while acting in a professional capacity that indicates that your tenant was seeking assistance for physical or mental injuries or abuse resulting from domestic/dating/sexual violence, stalking, or elder abuse

Your tenant needs to provide you with the notice within 180 days that any of the documentation was issued.

The tenant is responsible to you for rent for no more than 14 more days following the notice. Any tenants other than the victim will continue to need to pay rent for the duration of the lease.

Tenant’s Death

If your tenant has a yearly contract and dies, the tenant’s executor or administrator is now responsible for the lease until the lease term ends. If the tenant has a month-to-month tenancy, the lease ends on the 30th day of the month.[29]

Sources

  1. The Consumer Credit Reporting Agencies Act, Civil Code Section 1785.1
  2. Civil Code Section 1950.6
  3. Health and Safety Code Section 17922
  4. California Civil Code Section 1950.7
  5. California Civil Code Section 1950.8
  6. California Civil Code Section 1632(k)
  7. The Fair Housing Acts
  8. California Civil Code Section 51
  9. Fair Housing Act
  10. Environmental Protection Agency Regulations
  11. California Civil Code Section 1941.7
  12. California Civil Code Section 1941.5
  13. California Civil Code Section 1950.5
  14. California Department of Consumer Affairs
  15. Granberry v. Islay Investments (1995)
  16. California Civil Code Section 1947
  17. California Department of Consumer Affairs
  18. Green v. Superior Court
  19. California Civil Code Section 1954
  20. California Civil Code Section 1941.4
  21. California Civil Code Section 1941.3
  22. California Civil Code Section 1941.5
  23. California Civil Code Section 1946.1
  24. Code of Civil Procedure Section 1161
  25. The California Department of Consumer Affairs
  26. California Civil Code Section 1942.5
  27. Servicemembers’ Civil Relief Act
  28. California Civil Code Section 1946.7
  29. Miller & Desatnik Management Co. v. Bullock