California landlord-tenant laws can be tricky to understand, but knowing your rights as a renter, property manager, or landlord can protect you from legal issues. While we suggest talking to a lawyer for specific legal advice, we hope this overview of California’s landlord-tenant law will help you better understand the rights and responsibilities contained in a typical lease agreement in the Golden State.
So, let’s get to it.
What Does a Rental Agreement in California Involve?
Whether you’re a landlord or renter, you’re likely familiar with the stack of paperwork that needs signing before the key handling. This paperwork is typically a lease or rental agreement, a written document between the landlord and future tenants stating that the landlord agrees to allow the tenants to occupy the property in exchange for rent.
A lease agreement is required by the state, as it protects both landlord and tenant and helps avoid misunderstandings or errors along the way.
While they can be customized depending on the landlord’s preferences, here are the most common details that should be included in a lease agreement in California:
- Rent amount, payment due date, and accepted payment methods
- Names of each party included in the rental agreement
- Property and amenity descriptions
- Eviction policy
- Late-fee policy
- Lease termination policy
- Security deposit information
- Recommended utilities
- Mandatory disclosures (including mold, pests, bedbugs, lead paint exposure, etc.)
Along with a rental agreement, landlords and tenants also have rights and obligations as determined by local laws. While your mileage may vary depending on your area, here are the most common California state rights and regulations:
Landlord Rights and Duties
According to the California Civil Code (1940-1954.05), a landlord can collect rent, keep security deposits due to property damage, evict tenants who breach their contract, prohibit smoking on the premises (must be stated in the lease agreement), and more.
At the same time, landlords must provide a safe place for tenants to live and promptly communicate with tenants if any changes may temporarily disrupt their living situation. These disruptions often include property maintenance, repairs, rent increases, etc.
Tenant Rights and Duties
Tenants have the right to a safe, habitable living space. If a landlord fails to provide essential services, tenants may have the right to withhold rent or sue the landlord for retaliation. At the same time, tenants are also responsible for keeping the unit safe and habitable and avoiding activities that could disturb neighbors or other occupants.
Other tenant responsibilities may include the following:
- Maintain the property and make minor repairs as needed
- Pay rent on time as described in the agreement
- Avoid damaging the property
- Comply with the rules outlined in the rental agreement
Suppose the tenant fails to comply with these rules. In that case, it may result in late fees, non-refunded deposits, and even eviction—so it’s important to communicate with the landlord ahead of time to avoid penalties and maintain a positive tenant-landlord relationship.
Fair Housing Act
In the U.S., Tenants have the right to housing regardless of race, origin, religion, disability, or gender, according to the Fair Housing Act. This federal law states that landlords do not have the right to discriminate against protected classes of people.
In addition to the Fair Housing Act, California tenants are also protected by two state-specific housing discrimination laws, which are:
We’ll outline the FEHA and Unruh Act below in greater detail.
FEHA states that in addition to the Fair Housing Act, it is also unlawful to discriminate against sexual orientation, ancestry, familial status, and source of income.
Unruh Civil Rights Act
The Unruh Act prohibits any business in California from exhibiting unlawful discrimination in the following ways:
- Refusal to sell, rent, or lease
- Withholding accommodations
- Harassing tenants or customers
- Canceling or terminating a sale for illegal reasons
- Segregation of any kind
- Discriminatory advertisements, etc.
So, while there are no specific guidelines for how landlords should choose their tenants, the best practice is to go by the first available, eligible tenant. This way, it’s clear that biases did not play a role in the selection of tenants and that those who apply as renters have an equal chance of finding a place to rent.
Rental Payment Obligations
A California landlord-tenant agreement should clearly outline rent due dates, how to pay, where to pay, discuss any late fee policies, bounced check fees, and other essential details.
In California, a landlord must allow a tenant at least one form of payment that is not an electronic transfer of funds from a bank account or cash; unless a tenant bounces a check or stops payment on a money order, the landlord can request cash only.
Rent Increases and Notices
As part of the California Tenant Protection Act (AB-1482), implemented in January 2020, a landlord can increase rent up to 10% of the lowest rent payment with a 30-day notice. If the landlord wishes to increase the rent by more than 10% within a year, the landlord must provide a 60-day notice.
Note: The California Tenant Protection Act does not supersede rent control laws currently established in other cities, such as San Francisco. Read more here.
Bounced Checks and Late Fees
According to California law, late fees should be “reasonable,” though it doesn’t set any restrictions on maximum late fees. Typically, a reasonable late rent fee in the state is around 5% to 10% of the cost of rent, with 5% being the average.
If a tenant bounces a check, the landlord can charge the tenant for any overcharge fees. The landlord can also charge a service fee of $25 for the first time a check bounces and $35 each time after.
In California, a landlord can charge an application fee to cover any out-of-pocket costs related to information gathering. The application fee is currently around $30; however, a landlord may adjust it to reflect changes according to the Consumer Price Index (CPI).
A landlord can also charge tenants the first month’s rent before they move in if they prefer.
A security deposit is not required in California, but is recommended as a security measure for future problems. A deposit is typically equal to one month of rent payments, sometimes several months, depending on amenities.
When a tenant moves out, the Landlord is required to return the security deposit within 21 days of moveout. But if rent is unpaid or the property is damaged or extremely dirty, a landlord can withhold the security deposit and put it towards those additional costs.
It’s important for landlords to carefully document the condition of the rental unit before tenants move in so that they know when to withhold a security deposit. For more details on security deposits, visit our blog, Top Reasons Not to Return a Tenant’s Deposit.
According to California landlord-tenant laws, either party may terminate the lease after it reaches its completion date. For reference, a tenant or landlord must give a written notice equivalent to the lease term. To clarify, a seven-day notice must be provided for weekly leases and a 30-day notice for monthly leases. There are no set standards for yearly, quarterly, or other leases.
Tenants can terminate the lease for the following reasons:
- The rental is inhabitable
- The tenant is a victim of domestic violence
- The landlord is harassing the tenant
- The tenant is leaving for military duty
Keep in mind, that terminating a lease does not mean not having to pay rent. If it is not specified in the lease agreement, the tenant may be responsible for the entire amount of payment for the lease term.
Notice of entry
The tenant has the right to privacy in California, so if a landlord needs to enter the rental property while the tenant is living in it, the landlord must give the tenant a 48 hour notice. If there are repair needs in the home, at least 24 hours notice is needed. There is, however, no notice required for emergencies.
Even if a tenant leaves for an extended time, the landlord does not have the right to enter the property without giving proper notice.
In California, a landlord can evict a tenant for several reasons, including if the tenant is breaching the rental agreement, refusing to pay rent, or is involved in criminal activity on or off the property. In this case, the landlord can give a three-day notice. If the eviction is due to not paying rent, the tenant then has three days to pay before the landlord files for eviction.
During eviction, a landlord may not do the following:
- Lock a tenant out of the rental
- Shut off utilities to the rental
If you’re new to renting in California, you may feel overwhelmed by the local landlord-tenant laws, especially since they are unique to other states. But with a little reading, you’ll have a better idea of landlord and tenant rights in no time.
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