WHAT SHOULD I KNOW BEFORE I RENT?

State Bar of California


LANDLORD/TENANT QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS
APPLICABLE TO CALIFORNIA LAW ONLY!


1.   Are all rental agreements alike?

No. The two most common kinds of rental agreements are "lease"
and "month-to-month."

A lease is for a definite period of time, generally one year.
Unless you break the terms of the lease. The owner of your
apartment or house, your landlady or landlord cannot raise your
rent unless the lease says otherwise. The owner also cannot ask
you to move until the lease is up.

A month-to-month rental agreement is not for a set period of
time. It continues until you decide to move or the owner asks you
to leave. If you pay your rent monthly, you must give the owner
30 days written notice that you are moving. An owner who wants
you to leave or decides to raise your rent must inform you, in
writing, 30 days ahead of time. However, you and the owner may
agree in writing to a shorter notice. Moreover, if you break the
rules, perhaps by using the apartment for illegal purposes or
creating a nuisance, the owner can give you a three day notice.

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2.   Must all rental agreements be in writing?

No. Both leases and month-to-month agreements may be oral or
written, However, a lease for more than one year generally must
be in writing.

*    Oral agreement. With an oral agreement, nothing is written
     down. You and the owner talk things over and come to an
     understanding. Some people like oral agreements because they
     have fewer rules than other agreements do. On the other
     hand, several months later, you and the owner might remember
     the agreement differently so it is generally better to put
     the agreement in writing.

*    Written agreement. It you have a written agreement, read it
     carefully and make sure that you understand everything it
     says. Sometimes a lease or month-to-month agreement mentions
     another paper such as "House Rules." Do not sign the
     agreement until you read the extra rules. Also, make sure
     that any blank spaces in the agreement are filled in or
     crossed out before you sign it and ask for a copy.

Whether you have an oral or written agreement, be sure to get the
name, address and telephone number of the owner or the owner's
agent. You will need this information in case of an emergency,
such as a broken water pipe or lost keys. You also should know
where to reach the owner if you have a complaint.

Strangely enough, some tenants do not know where to find the
people who own their apartments. But in California, the law says
that the names and addresses of the owner and manager must be on
the rental agreement, if the building has three or more
apartments. Or, they can be posted in the building in two places
where tenants are likely to see them. If the owner's address is
not listed, talk to your building manager. The manager must fill
in for the owner.

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3.   Can I change a written agreement?

You can make changes before you sign, as long as the owner
agrees. Just cross out whatever the two of you agree to take out.
Write in any additions. For instance, your agreement may say that
the owner can give you as little as seven days notice before
raising your rent. It you want longer notice in your agreement,
you can ask the owner to change it to 30 days or cross it out.
But be sure you both initial all changes.

If you want to smoke or keep a pet in the apartment and the lease
says you cannot, you can ask it the owner will change that part
of the agreement.

Some written agreements have rules that cannot be enforced. Many
rental agreements are printed forms available at stationery
stores. Often, these forms are out of date because the law has
changed.

You will not be bound by any illegal or outdated rules in the
agreement you sign. For example, your agreement may say that the
owner is not responsible if you get hurt because the building is
not kept in good repair. But, under the law, that may not be
true. The agreement might say that you cannot make repairs and
then deduct the cost from your rent. But sometimes you cannot.

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4.   Do I owe any money besides the rent?

You might. The owner has the right to ask for a number of fees
and deposits. And you have a right to a receipt or written
agreement that tells what the money is for and how you can get it
back.

Although the law considers all deposits to be "security
deposits," here are some of the payments that the owner might ask
you to make:

*    Last months rent in advance. The owner can ask you to pay
     the last month's rent before you move in. Then, if you give
     proper notice when you want to move out, you will not have
     to pay rent for the last month.

*    A Security deposit. This deposit can be used for such things
     as replacing a window that you broke before moving out. But,
     if you do not cause any damage, the security deposit will be
     given back to you.

*    Cleaning fee or deposit. Some owners want a cleaning deposit
     or fee. Your ease may say that such a fee is not refundable.
     But that is illegal. Whether it is called a fee or a
     deposit, you usually can get the money back if you keep your
     place clean.

The owner either must give you the security deposit no later than
two weeks after you move or must tell you in writing why you will
not get back some or all of the money and how it was spent. An
owner who needs to use part of the money for cleaning or repairs
must give you the rest. What if the owner does not notify you or
you believe the owner is not entitled to keep the money? Then,
you can sue in small claims court. If you win the case, you could
get part or all of your deposits back. You also may be paid a
penalty if the court decides that the owner failed to return the
deposit because of "bad faith" which means it was not by mistake.

California law puts a limit on the deposits that the owner can
ask for, no matter what they are called. All of them cannot add
up to more than the cost of two months rent for an unfurnished
apartment or three months rent for a furnished place.

Also, keep in mind that you are not covered by the owner's
insurance policies. If you wish, you can purchase renter's
insurance which covers your belongings against fire or theft,

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5.   What happens when my lease runs out?

Read your lease carefully. It may say what you must do. For
example, the lease may have an "automatic-renewal" clause. This
means that, before the lease runs out, you must tell the owner if
you plan to move. And the owner must ask you to move before the
lease ends. Otherwise, the lease will be renewed for the same
period of time as the original agreement.

Note: Automatic renewal clauses cannot be enforced unless it is
printed in eight-point bold faced type.

What if you have a six-month or one-year lease, but no automatic-
renewal clause? If you pay rent monthly and the owner accepts
your rent after the lease is up, the agreement is automatically
renewed, but only on a month-to-month basis.

Some leases do not say that they last for a year or for a certain
period of time. Instead, they might say the agreement ends on a
particular date. In this case, you can stay on in the apartment
past that date on a month-to-month basis if the owner accepts
your rent payment.

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6.   Who should make repairs in my home?

You should, if you, your family or a friend cause the damage. For
example, if your child cracks a window, you must replace the
glass. Or, you can ask the owner or manager to make the repair
but you must be prepared to pay for it. If you did not cause the
damage, the owner probably is responsible for making the repairs.

The best time to ask for repairs or improvements is before you
move in, but after the ease is signed. Walk through the apartment
or house with the owner or manager and ask to have certain things
fixed. You may want to take a friend along. Then, your friend can
be a witness it you and the owner later disagree about the
repairs to be made.

It also is a good idea to take pictures of any problems, like a
broken table leg or light fixture. Be sure that you and your
friend initial and date the photographs. These photos also can
help you prove that you are entitled to get back the security
deposit when you move.

If the repairs are not made by the date that was promised, send a
reminder in the mail and keep a copy.

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7.   Can the owner come into my home without asking me?

Yes, but only in emergencies. For example, perhaps water
overflows a bathtub in the apartment above yours. The owner can
check your apartment for water damage, even if you are not at
home.

The owner can enter your apartment or house for certain other
reasons, too, but only after giving you a 24-hour notice and only
during normal business hours. For example, if you plan to
move,the owner has a right to show the apartment or house to
other people. Or, the owner might want to bring in an electrician
to check the wiring.

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8.   What are the owner's rights?

The owner has a right to expect you to follow the rules of your
rental agreement. For example, you certainly should pay your rent
on time and keep the apartment or house clean. And you should not
bother other tenants with noisy parties or a television set
turned full blast.

In addition, you should use the apartment or house only as it is
meant to be used. For example, don't cook if there is no kitchen.

The owner also has the right to expect you to fix something you
damage. For instance, if you break a lamp in a furnished
apartment, you should repair or replace it.

If you do not do these things, the owner may have a good reason
to ask you to move. And if you do not move, the owner can sue to
evict you. Also, although no one can refuse to rent to people
with children, the owner can limit the number of people living in
the apartment.

The owner also has the right to sell the building. If so, your
lease, if you have one, will not change and the owner must either
transfer your deposits to the new owner or refund them. If the
deposits are transferred, the owner must tell you in writing and
give you the new owner's name, address and telephone number.

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9.   What are my rights?

You may rent your apartment to someone else, as long as your
agreement does not say you cannot. This is called "subleasing."
If the agreement forbids subleasing, check with the owner and try
to get approval in writing, Be sure that your subtenant is
responsible. If a subtenant does not pay the rent or damages the
place, you will have to pay.

Some communities have "rent control" laws that give you certain
protection against rent increases. These laws usually say when
and how much your rent can be raised. Many local governments have
"rent board" agencies that can help you with issues involving
local rent laws and ordinances.

You also nave the right to a decent place to live for the rent
you pay. The law says that your apartment must be livable. If the
apartment is not livable through no fault of your own, you can
move. You may not have to pay rent after you move, even though
you have a lease.

According to the law, for a place to be unlivable or
"untenantable," the problem must be substantial and may involve a
lack of:

*    waterproofing and weather proofing such as unbroken windows.

*    plumbing that is in good working order

*    enough hot and cold running water to bathe and clean.

*    electrical lighting that is in good working order.

*    clean grounds and building, without a build-up of trash, at
     the time you move in.

*    elimination of roaches and rodents.

*    enough trash cans to hold your garbage.

*    floors, stairs and railings that are in good repair

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10.  Can I report the owner if the apartment is unlivable?

Yes. Let's say the furnace has not worked for six weeks n the
middle of winter, and the owner won't fix it, in spite of all
your phone cells and letters. ln this case, you can report the
owner to a housing or building inspection department.

What if there are rats or mice in the building? Maybe garbage
sits around for weeks at a time. Then, you should call the county
or city health department, A lot of trash in the hallways could
be a fire hazard. In this case, you can report the owner to the
fire department.

The government department you call may give the owner a written
notice to correct the problem within 60 days. If there is no
improvement in that time, you can sue the owner.

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11.  What can I do instead of reporting the landlord?

If the problems affect tenantability, you can make repairs
yourself or pay to have them made. Then, you can deduct that
money from your rent. But you cannot deduct more than the cost of
one month rent for any one repair. And you cannot use the repair
and deduct remedy more than twice a year.

You also could stop paying rant until repairs are made. This can
be a risky procedure without legal advice because the owner may
sue you if you do not pay rent. And, you probably should put your
rent money into an "escrow" account. This means that your rent
money is kept in a savings account or safe deposit box. This
makes sure that you will have the money to pay the rent when
repairs are made or if you have to move.

In either case, be sure to write to the owner first, saying what
you plan to do. You also must give the owner a reasonable amount
of time to make the repairs.

If you have a major complaint about the owner, it is possible
that the other tenants do too. Get them together to talk things
over. Perhaps all of the tenants will sign a letter asking the
owner to make a certain repair or improvement, On they might
select one person to meet with the owner on behalf of all the
tenant

If all else fails, you and the other people in the building might
consider holding a rent strike. In California, rent strikes are
legal only under certain conditions. So you and the other tenants
may want to pool your money and hire a lawyer.

Even if you do not hold a rent strike, you may need a lawyer's
help.

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12.  Can the landlord sue to evict me?

Yes. In some cases, the owner can sue whether your rental
agreement is a lease or month-to-month.

If you have a lease, the owner can try to evict you for such
reasons as not paying your rent or creating a nuisance by having
noisy parties. In these cases, the owner must give you a three
day written notice to leave before suing to evict you. The owner
also might sue to evict you if you break part of the agreement or
if you are asked to leave when your lease runs out and you refuse
to do so.

If you have a month-to-month agreement, the owner can give you a
30-Day notice in writing, even if you have not done anything
wrong. If you do not move within that time, the owner can sue to
evict you. However, some communities have laws that limit
evictions to certain "good cause" reasons only.

In order to have you evicted, the owner must go to court. The
suit against you is called an "unlawful detainer action."

Here is how an eviction suit starts. After you get either a three-
day or 30-day notice, the owner will send you a "complaint." This
is a paper that says you are being sued. You have five days,
including weekends, to reply to the complaint. You also will
receive a "summons" which tells you when and where to respond. If
the owner sues in municipal court, you must reply to the
complaint in writing. If you do not, the case probably will be
decided in the owner's favor.

To try avoiding a lawsuit, you might suggest that you and the
owner try "mediation." This means that a "neutral third party",
someone who has nothing to do with the problem, tries to help you
and the owner work out a way to settle your differences. To
locate a mediation program in your area, get in touch with the
Dispute Resolution Coordinator, Department of Consumer Affairs,
1020 N Street, Sacramento, CA 95814, (916) 322-5254, and ask the
free copy of a directory of dispute resolution programs. A
directory of non-profit dispute resolution programs is available
from the Office of Legal Services, State Bar of California, 555
Franklin Street, San Francisco, CA 94102-44984. For more
information, see the State Bar pamphlet, "Should I Try to Settle
My Problem Out Of Court?"

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13.  Can the owner lock me out?

An owner who wants you to move cannot legally lock you out of
your apartment or house, or remove your belongings or any doors
or windows. And, an owner cannot legally turn off the gas,
electricity, heat or water. If one of these things happen, you
can take the owner to court,

If you win the case, the owner will have to pay for any damage
that occurred. For instance, maybe food spoiled in your
refrigerator while the electricity was off. And the owner may
have to pay you up to $100 for each day that the utilities were
turned off or at least $250 for every law that was broken. The
owner also may have to pay for your lawyer. However if you lose
the case, you may have to pay for the owner's lawyer.

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14.  How do I handle an eviction suit?

If the suit involves money and the amount is $5,000 or less, the
owner may take you to the small claims court. See the State Bar's
"How Do I Use the Small Claims Court?" pamphlet, which can be
ordered from the State Bar at the address listed on the back of
the pamphlet. Please send a stamped self-addressed envelope with
your request for a quick response.

Lawyers are not allowed in this court, but you can talk to one
beforehand so that you will be able to defend yourself well. For
example, a lawyer can tell you if you may be able to claim that
the eviction suit is "retaliatory." That means the owner
illegally wants to punish you for something, perhaps because you
made a report to a building inspector.

Most eviction suits, however, are filed in municipal court where
lawyers can represent you and the owner, too.

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15.  What happens if I lose the suit?

If you lose, you may have to pay the owner's costs of going to
court, including attorney fees. You also are allowed to "appeal."
This means you can ask a higher court to rehear your case. But
you will still have to move unless the court grants a "stay" or
delay, until the case is finally decided.

If you do not appeal, there is not much you can do, except move.
Otherwise, the owner can get a "writ of possession." This is a
paper that orders the sheriff to move you out. If you are in the
apartment, he will put you on the sidewalk.

What if you move out but leave your belongings behind? If your
things are worth less than $300, the owner can keep or sell them
or throw them out. If they are worth more than $300, the owner
must give you 15 days (18 days if the notice comes by mail) to
take them away. If the owner puts your things into storage during
that time, you may have to pay storage charges.

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16.  What can I do about discrimination?

You may believe that the owner of an apartment or house won't
rent to you or is evicting you because of your race, religion,
national origin, ancestry, age, sexual preference, sex or
disability. Perhaps the owner will not rent to you and a person
of the opposite sex because you are not married.

If so, write or call the nearest office of either the California
Department of Fair Employment and Housing or the U.S. Government
Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). You should
know, however, that the owners of housing for senior citizens do
not have to accept families with children.

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17.  How can I find a lawyer to represent me?

If you do not know a lawyer, ask a friend, co-worker, employer or
business associate to recommend one. You may want to ask if the
lawyer has some experience in landlord/tenant law.

Or call a local State Bar-certified lawyer referral service. Look
in the Yellow Pages under "Attorney Referral Services,"
"Attorneys" or "Lawyers." The person who answers you call can
make an appointment for yo to see a lawyer. You may be required
to pay a small fee for the referral and may talk with the lawyer
for about half and hour. Then, if you decide to hire the lawyer,
make sure you understand what you will be paying for, how much it
will costs, and when yo will be expected to pay your bill.

What if you do not have enough money to pay for legal advice? You
may belong to a "legal insurance plan" that covers the kind of
services you need. Or, if your income is very low, you may
qualify for free or low-cost legal help. Check the white pages of
you telephone directory for a legal services program such as a
legal aid society in your county. You can also ask you county bar
association if its State Bar-certified lawyer referral service
offers free legal advice for low-income people or if it can
direct you to a no-cost legal services organization.

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For more information, see the State Bar pamphlet, "How Can I Find
and Hire the Right Lawyer?" For a copy of this pamphlet, send a
self-addressed, stamped envelope with your request to State Bar
Pamphlets, 555 Franklin Street, San Francisco, CA 94102.

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