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California Rental Law: Tenant and Landlord Rights and Responsibilities

Lana Williams Written by: Lana Williams, Property Management Specialist - Updated: Aug 18, 2022

Rental Law Terms and Phrases to Know

  • Abandonment: A tenant’s choice to move out of an uninhabitable unit due to landlord’s refusal to address issues after receiving a defect notice from tenant
  • Discrimination (as it relates to renting): Lying to, denying, harassing, or providing segregated housing to a person because of their race, religion, sex, color, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, income, age, disability, medical condition, religion, or having children in their household under 18 years old
  • Implied warranty of habitability: Landlords must abide by this legal rule that requires they maintain their units in a condition suitable for humans to live in, complying with building codes and standards that would affect a tenant’s health and safety
  • Legal aid organizations: Groups providing free legal representation, advice, and other services to disadvantaged people
  • Mediator: A neutral third party used to settle disputes between two parties
  • Periodic rental agreement: A written or oral agreement stating the length of time between rent payments but not how long it will last
  • Retaliatory eviction: Punishing a tenant by raising the rent or pushing eviction due to rent withholding or repair-and-deduct tactics
  • Unlawful detainer lawsuit: A lawsuit that must be filed and won by a landlord to evict a tenant
  • Writ of possession: A court-issued document informing the tenant they must vacate the property due to the landlord winning an unlawful detainer lawsuit

Before Moving In

Couple looking at apartment

There are many factors to consider before entering into a new rental contract. It’s challenging enough to find the perfect place to call home or the right tenants for a property. Then comes the issue of reaching an agreement with an owner, property manager, or tenant. Throw in state-specific laws and it can be a lot to deal with. In this section, we’ll walk through the basics of what tenants and landlords alike need to consider before committing to any kind of deal, all while keeping California rental law in mind. 

1. Understand the lease responsibilities

A lease is a legal contract between two people: a lessor and a lessee. The lessor is the property owner who gives the lessee the right to use and live on the property for a specified amount of time in exchange for a recurring periodic payment. Although usually done in writing, oral leases are another legal option. However, the lease must be in writing if the lessee is going to be there for more than a year.

Tenants can rest assured they won’t be evicted for the duration of the lease as long as they pay on time and follow the agreement, and landlords can enjoy the guarantee of a long-term tenant. Tenants also have the benefit of keeping the same rent rate without increase, unless otherwise stated in the contract. One downside of a lease is that it makes moving difficult if a tenant needs to break the lease early. They may be required to pay a large fee, find someone new to take over the lease, or pay rent for the remaining months under contract. 

Leases are designed to protect both the landlord and the tenant, so it’s important to understand all the details within the contract. Both parties have their own responsibilities to uphold during the length of the lease, and each lease will vary depending on the property owner. We’ll cover those responsibilities in detail below.

2. Be clear on the rental agreement 

Rental agreements (also known as periodic rental agreements) are similar to leases, but not exactly the same. These types of contracts are meant for shorter periods of time and tend to cover week-to-week and month-to-month rentals, while leases are used for longer periods of time spanning six to 12 months. It’s also important to note that rental agreements can be created legally in written or oral form.

Oral rental agreement: Through verbal communication, the landlord agrees to rent the unit to the tenant, and the tenant agrees to pay the specified amount every week or month. This oral agreement is legally binding and can make any future disagreements a challenge to address, as there is no written proof of the contract. 

For an oral rental agreement in California, the following must-have disclosures are nonnegotiable and required from the landlord or real estate agent within 15 days in writing:

  • How the rent payments are made, such as by check or money order. Landlords can’t demand payment in cash unless a previous check or money order has been returned or stopped — they will need to inform the tenant in writing that rent will be accepted only in cash and provide a copy of the bounced or cancelled check. Also, landlords can accept rent payments from third parties (such as a relative or business) as long as this arrangement is documented in writing.
  • The contact information of a property manager and property owner or owner agent with the authorization to receive any legal notice addressed to the owner.
  • The contact information of the person or entity receiving the rental payments, including usual hours of operation for payment in person. Alternatively, the contact and account information for electronic payment to a financial institution.
  • Additionally, a written notice must be given that this website maintained by the California Department of Justice provides information on registered sex offenders.

Written rental agreement: If the tenant and landlord decide to enter into an agreement for more than a year, the entire contract must be put into writing to be legitimate and enforceable by both parties. A written agreement may be the smartest option even for short-term rentals, especially if there are pets involved or the landlord agrees to pay for utilities. Having the length of time between payments, the rent amount, written notice requirements, and any obligations written down will ensure that both the tenant and landlord know their responsibilities and the consequences of failing to uphold them.

Whether established in writing or verbally, rental agreements should outline the following terms:

  • Rental unit address
  • Rent amount and frequency
  • Where and to whom the tenant pays rent
  • Security deposit amount and what it pays for
  • Late fees and bounced check fees
  • Contact information for the tenant and landlord
  • Pet policy
  • Who pays for utilities
  • Which repairs each party is responsible for
  • Yard maintenance expectations
  • Rules around subletting
  • When and how the landlord may enter the unit
  • Attorney fee policy in case of a lawsuit

3. Keep track of deposits and fees

There can be many fees associated with securing a rental property. Before tenants even sign the lease, they will often be required to pay an application fee. Then comes the security deposit, which can include coverage for pets, damages, and cleaning. If a unit is unfurnished, landlords can legally ask for two or even three months’ worth of rent for fully furnished properties. Let’s look at the usual fees and deposits associated with renting:

  • Screening fee: The landlord or property manager may charge a screening fee during the application process. In California, the law states that screening fees are not to exceed a specified dollar amount. As of 2021, these fees can be no more than $53.33, although most landlords set their fees lower than the maximum to avoid unfair business claims.
  • Security deposit: Before a tenant moves into their new rental, the landlord will (in most cases) require a security deposit. California mandates that all security deposits be fully refundable minus any damage (beyond usual wear and tear), back rent, or cleaning services. The state law does not allow for nonrefundable deposits. 
  • Application/holding fee: If a tenant can’t move into a unit immediately, the landlord will often allow for a holding deposit to be placed. This fee reserves the property until the tenant is able to pay the security deposit and first month’s rent. Tenants should check to see if the holding fee can apply toward the first month’s rent, as this is a commonly practiced policy. It’s also a good idea to know what would happen to the money if a tenant changes their mind and doesn’t want to move in. 
  • Pet deposit: Tenants who are allowed to have pets in their rental unit are usually required to pay a pet deposit. In other states, this type of deposit is often nonrefundable, but the state of California has outlawed any such security deposits. Pet deposits in California can be included in the security deposit and are completely refundable minus any repairs for damages caused by the pet(s). 
  • Condition check-in list: Although California landlords are not required to provide a move-in checklist, it’s strongly recommended that tenants and landlords create their own. Consider taking photographs with timestamps for evidence of the unit’s physical condition before moving in. If a tenant or landlord is taken to court for damages, this proof could be extremely helpful.

FAQ: Payments and fees

  • Can rent be paid in installments?

    As long as the landlord receives full payment by the date agreed upon in the lease or rental agreement, tenants may be able to pay as often as they’d like, though it’s a good idea to make sure the landlord is OK with that. It’s wise to request receipts for any payments made toward rent, whether prepaid or right on time. Sticking to whatever was agreed upon in the contract is the safest way to go.

  • Can the landlord keep the deposit?

    It is unlawful for a landlord to require nonrefundable deposits of any kind. The only time a deposit can be withheld is for unpaid rent, cleaning the unit to its pre-rented condition, repairing damages outside the usual wear and tear, or replacing things like owner furnishings and keys. After a tenant has moved out, the landlord has 21 days to return the full or remaining security deposit.

  • What happens if your landlord keeps your deposit?

    After attempting to request the deposit from a landlord, if they do not comply or they make improper deductions, tenants can file a small claims lawsuit for the security deposit plus penalties and court costs. These fees can go up to $7,500. If the tenant can prove the landlord acted in “bad faith,” the landlord is responsible for paying the improperly held deposit plus a penalty that is twice the amount of the deposit.

  • What happens if you find damages after completing your check-in list?

    If damages are found within the first week or month after the initial move-in conditions list is made, it’s important for the tenant to notify the landlord in writing immediately. Getting photos or video footage of any damage is also a good idea. The longer a tenant waits, the less likely the landlord will believe or accept those damages as preexisting.

While the Lease Is Active

All the need-to-know information about the rental agreement should be included in the lease. Terms, pricing, rules, policies, and more can be found on the many pages of the contract. Understanding tenant and landlord rights and responsibilities, however, can be tricky. In this section, we outline what tenants can expect from their landlords, what is expected of them, and what to know about taking care of repairs.

The landlord’s responsibilities

As the owner of the rental property, the landlord is responsible for providing a safe and habitable place to live. Part of maintaining the livability of the rental is by making repairs to defects that would otherwise create an unlivable environment. The state of California created a law specifically for this precedent with the “implied warranty of habitability.” If damage or disrepair seriously affects the condition of the property, the landlord must make those repairs. The exception would be any damages caused by the tenants, their pets, or guests.

Landlords are also responsible for giving appropriate notice to their tenants. Sometimes a contractor or property manager needs to enter the unit to make repairs, respond to an emergency, show the unit to prospective tenants, follow a court order, or inspect a waterbed installation. Legally, the landlord must give at least a 24-hour notice to the tenant in person, by mail, or by a note on the front door. Keep in mind that no notice is needed for situations involving emergencies, abandonment, and in-person oral consent.

The tenant’s responsibilities

One of the main responsibilities of a tenant is to pay rent in full and on time. If the tenant fails to do this, they may be served with an eviction notice. This notice gives the tenant three days to pay their rent or move out. Refusal to pay rent can result in the landlord taking the tenant to court.

Tenants are also held responsible for maintaining their unit and the surrounding common areas. They must keep the premises clean, use utilities properly, use the premises for the intended purpose, dispose of waste in a sanitary way, and notify the landlord of broken security devices like door and window locks. As stated above, tenants are responsible for repairing any damages resulting from abuse or neglect by the tenants, their pets, or their guests. Each lease or rental agreement should outline who is responsible for which types of repairs during the rental period.

What to know about repairs

We covered the repairs a landlord and tenant are responsible for by law. So, what happens if a repair needs to be made under the implied warranty of habitability? The tenant should notify the landlord as soon as possible by phone and in written form. Landlords are taking care of a real estate investment, and most would like to keep their properties in good working order. However, there may be some who aren’t so responsive or concerned.

Tenants may need to take matters into their own hands if all these conditions apply: 

  • The defects pose a serious endangerment to the tenant’s health and safety
  • The repairs cost more than a month’s rent
  • The tenants, their pets, or their guests are not at fault
  • The landlord was informed of the needed repairs verbally and in writing
  • It has been 30 days (or less depending on severity)
  • The landlord doesn’t make the necessary repairs in a reasonable amount of time

If a tenant is unable to get help from their landlord to make the necessary repairs without a good reason for the delay, there are options to try and remedy the situation depending on the severity of the disrepair. Be sure to have as much information as possible in writing, photographs, video, and witnesses. Hard evidence will be needed if the situation is escalated to a courtroom. Here are some of the options, each with its own risks:

  • Repair and deduct: The tenant takes care of the repairs themselves, deducts the cost of repairs from the rent, and provides proof of purchase in the form of receipts. This option cannot be used more than once in any 12-month period.
  • Abandon: Instead of repairing things themselves, tenants may choose to abandon the property altogether. Obtaining written inspections from local health officials may be helpful to back up any claims from the tenant.
  • Withhold rent: The last resort is to withhold rent altogether if requests for repairs are going unanswered. The defects should be even more substantial than those used to justify the repair-and-deduct or abandonment options. Tenants should consider keeping the withheld money in escrow as a way to show the court they are not just trying to get out of paying rent. 

It’s important to note that the landlord may choose to sue and then pursue eviction for nonpayment if the defects were not serious enough to warrant the repairs. Even if a tenant wins a case, the landlord may resort to retaliation by way of eviction as payback. However, any kind of retaliatory eviction is limited by the law. 

Illegal actions for landlords and tenants

Tenants shouldn’t do any kind of illegal activity on their rental property, and any such activity is grounds for eviction. But when it comes to landlords, they are the ones who must do their due diligence to stay within the constraints of the law. In California, it is illegal for landlords to:

  • Discriminate or harass tenants on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, marital status, national origin, ancestry, familial status, source of income, disability, immigration status, citizenship, age, medical status, or whether they have persons under the age of 18 living in their household
  • Lock tenants out of their rental property with the intent of forcing an eviction
  • Make any security deposit nonrefundable
  • Charge a security deposit of more than two months’ rent for an unfurnished rental or three months’ rent for a furnished rental — for tenants who are active duty military members, security deposits that exceed one month’s rent for an unfurnished apartment or two months’ rent for a furnished apartment are prohibited
  • Charge more than the maximum rate for application fees
  • Raise the rent without notice by more than 5% (plus inflation) each year — for rent increases of less than 10%, landlords must give tenants at least 30 days’ written notice, while rent increases above 10% require 90 days’ notice
  • Charge a fee of more than $25 for the first bounced check or more than $35 for subsequent bounced checks
  • Run background checks on prospective tenants in Oakland and Berkley

Moving Out

Lady talking to rental manager

Moving out of a rental unit takes a lot of planning. It entails packing up belongings and furniture, cleaning, and sometimes making small repairs. Tenants need to know how they can safely conclude their lease or rental agreement on time and without missing out on getting their security deposit back. Let’s go over the two most important factors for finishing out and ending a lease or periodic rental agreement.

Giving notice

When a tenant is ready to end a rental agreement, the best practice is to do so in writing. The timing of the notice is important. Usually, notice is given for the same amount of time between rent payments. So if a tenant has a month-to-month lease, they would be required to give a 30-day notice. Alternatively, a week-to-week notice would need to be given within seven days. Leases and rental agreements can vary, so be sure to check with the landlord for the appropriate notice time frame for each unique situation. If tenants miss the proper notice period and are late, they may be subject to paying for the next month’s rent even if they no longer live there.

Deposit returns

Once a tenant gives proper notice and moves out of the unit, they can expect to receive their security deposit back if they took care of cleaning and repairs. All security deposits in the state of California must be refundable, but landlords do have the legal right to use the money from the deposit toward things like cleaning, repairs, and replacement. Tenants can expect to see whatever remains of their deposit returned to them 21 days after their move-out date. 

If no portion of the security deposit is returned, tenants should call and write to their landlords immediately. It may just be a misunderstanding, or it could be a withholding of funds. California landlords are not allowed to keep security deposits except to be used for the legal reasons listed above. Tenants who believe their deposits are being held unfairly can use their move-in inspection checklist, photos, and other forms of evidence to prove their case to the landlord. If they still don’t comply, a third party may need to be brought in for mediation. 

What to Know About Evictions

Evictions for month-to-month tenancy can be served through a 30-day or 60-day notice. Depending on the local ordinances, the landlord doesn’t have to give any reason for eviction. Tenants will have 30 or 60 days to either move out of the unit or negotiate a way to stay.

Three-day eviction notices can be given for a breach of the rental contract. If it’s a late rent payment issue, tenants must either correct the violation or leave. The other reasons listed below usually only allow for vacating the property. Three-day notice evictions can be given in writing for the following reasons:

  • Unpaid rent
  • Lease or rental agreement violation
  • Damages to the property
  • Illegal activity involving drugs and/or weapons
  • Using premises unlawfully
  • Domestic violence or assault

California law requires landlords to use the unlawful detainer legal process for removing renters from month-to-month tenancy — they can’t force you to leave by using methods such as cutting off your utilities or blocking your entrance. Tenants who feel their eviction is unlawful in any way should seek legal counsel immediately.

What Happens if a Rental Property Is Abandoned

Sometimes landlords are left with abandoned rental properties. When this happens, tenants may leave behind belongings and trash for the landlord to deal with. If the tenant has abandoned the unit and left items that are obviously trash, the landlord is free to dispose of any garbage and use the security deposit to pay for cleaning and repairs.

In California, any left-behind property such as medicine, furniture, or bicycles must first be cleared. If the tenancy has been terminated and the tenant has officially moved out of the unit, any belongings left behind are considered abandoned. Here are steps landlords must take to deal with these items:

  • Inventory and store all abandoned personal belongings
  • Notify the tenant and/or owner of the abandoned items by mail or in person
  • Create a detailed description including location, time, storage fees, and a warning that the items will be sold or disposed of if no one claims them in time
  • Store items for 15 days if notified in person, or 18 days if notified by mail
  • Charge tenant for reasonable storage costs and hold items until costs are paid
  • Sell or dispose of property if no one claims it

California Renter Resources

  • Department of Fair Employment and Housing. This government department enforces the state’s fair housing laws. These laws make it illegal to discriminate against someone because of a protected characteristic. Victims of housing discrimination can find help through the financial recovery of out-of-pocket expenses, attorney’s fees, damages for distress, and more.
  • Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Use the website’s search tool to find rental assistance programs in California. There are 34 programs across the state. These organizations distribute financial aid to help tenants and landlords alike who are struggling to stay on top of their rental payments. 
  • Tenants Together. Find informative counsel and support with the only renters’ rights organization in the state of California. The mission of Tenants Together is to provide statewide advocacy for renters based on the belief that housing is not a commodity but a human right.
  • California Tenant Law. The California Tenant Law website provides free online resources and paid legal services to renters across the state. It’s a place for renters to educate themselves on their rights and responsibilities to protect their housing.
  • Fair Housing Council of Orange County. The FHCOC is working to ensure all Californians have equal access to housing by eliminating any discrimination that would stand in the way of a renter’s rights. Not only does the FHCOC act as an advocate, but it also provides education and counseling to families in Orange County.
  • Project Sentinel. With over 50 programs dedicated to helping Californians with housing issues, Project Sentinel is providing crucial education for tenants’ rights. The organization is investigating complaints and advocating for those who experience discrimination around housing. 
  • State Bar of California. If a dispute with your landlord escalates to the courtroom, the State Bar’s Certified Lawyer Referral Services Directory can help you find the best legal representation in your area. Their site provides tips on how to find legal help and work with your attorney as well. 
  • Los Angeles County Department of Consumer and Business Affairs. Renters who live in Los Angeles can take advantage of a number of different programs that are offered by this agency. For example, they maintain the Los Angeles County Rent Registry, which allows you to access rental housing information and verify that properties are covered by the Los Angeles County Rent Stabilization and Tenant Protections Ordinance. They also provide you with access to skilled housing counselors, who are available Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at (800) 593-8222. 
  • Housing Rights Committee of San Francisco. This organization provides San Francisco renters with resources for accessing emergency rental assistance and learning more about housing issues. They also offer free tenant rights counseling, which is available Monday through Thursday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. at (415) 703-8634.
  • Sacramento County Renter’s Helpline. This service provides telephone counseling and dispute resolution services for tenants in the Sacramento area — it’s available Monday through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.​ at (916) 389-7877.