30 November 2010
Most landlord-tenant relationships go smoothly. However, problems sometimes do arise. For example, what if the rental unit’s furnace goes out in the middle of the winter? What happens if the landlord sells the building or decides to convert it into condominiums? This section discusses these and other possible issues and problems in the landlord-tenant relationship.
Repairs and Habitability
A rental unit must be fit to live in; that is, it must be habitable. In legal terms, “habitable” means that the rental unit is fit for occupation by human beings and that it substantially complies with state and local building and health codes that materially affect tenants’ health and safety.
California law makes landlords and tenants each responsible for certain kinds of repairs, although landlords ultimately are legally responsible for assuring that their rental units are habitable.
Landlord’s Responsibility for Repairs
Before renting a rental unit to a tenant, a landlord must make the unit fit to live in, or habitable. Additionally, while the unit is being rented, the landlord must repair problems that make the rental unit unfit to live in, or uninhabitable.
The landlord has this duty to repair because of a California Supreme Court case, called Green v. Superior Court, which held that all residential leases and rental agreements contain an implied warranty of habitability. Under the “implied warranty of habitability,” the landlord is legally responsible for repairing conditions that seriously affect the rental unit’s habitability. That is, the landlord must repair substantial defects in the rental unit and substantial failures to comply with state and local building and health codes. However, the landlord is not responsible under the implied warranty of habitability for repairing damages that were caused by the tenant or the tenant’s family, guests, or pets.
Generally, the landlord also must do maintenance work which is necessary to keep the rental unit liveable. Whether the landlord or the tenant is responsible for making less serious repairs is usually determined by the rental agreement.
The law is very specific as to what kinds of conditions make a rental uninhabitable.
Tenant’s Responsibility for Repairs
Tenants are required by law to take reasonable care of their rental units, as well as common areas such as hallways and outside areas. Tenants must act to keep those areas clean and undamaged. Tenants also are responsible for repair of all damage that results from their neglect or abuse, and for repair of damage caused by anyone for whom they are responsible, such as family, guests, or pets.
Conditions That Make a Rental Unit Legally Uninhabitable
There are many kinds of defects that could make a rental unit unlivable. The implied warranty of habitability requires landlords to maintain their rental units in a condition fit for the “occupation of human beings.” In addition, the rental unit must “substantially comply” with building and housing code standards that materially affect tenants’ health and safety.
A rental unit may be considered uninhabitable (unlivable) if it contains a lead hazard that endangers the occupants or the public, or is a substandard building because, for example, a structural hazard, inadequate sanitation, or a nuisance endangers the health, life, safety, property, or welfare of the occupants or the public.
A dwelling also may be considered uninhabitable (unlivable) if it substantially lacks any of the following:
- Effective waterproofing and weather protection of roof and exterior walls, including unbroken windows and doors.
- Plumbing facilities in good working order, including hot and cold running water, connected to a sewage disposal system.
- Gas facilities in good working order.
- Heating facilities in good working order.
- An electric system, including lighting, wiring, and equipment, in good working order.
- Clean and sanitary buildings, grounds, and appurtenances (for example, a garden or a detached garage), free from debris, filth, rubbish, garbage, rodents, and vermin.
- Adequate trash receptacles in good repair.
- Floors, stairways, and railings in good repair. In addition to these requirements, each rental unit must have all of the following:
- A working toilet, wash basin, and bathtub or shower. The toilet and bathtub or shower must be in a room which is ventilated and allows privacy.
- A kitchen with a sink that cannot be made of an absorbent material such as wood.
- Natural lighting in every room through windows or skylights. Windows in each room must be able to open at least halfway for ventilation, unless a fan provides mechanical ventilation.
- Safe fire or emergency exits leading to a street or hallway. Stairs, hallways, and exits must be kept litter-free. Storage areas, garages, and basements must be kept free of combustible materials.
- Operable deadbolt locks on the main entry doors of rental units, and operable locking or security devices on windows.
- Working smoke detectors in all units of multi-unit buildings, such as duplexes and apartment complexes. Apartment complexes also must have smoke detectors in common stairwells.
- Ground fault circuit interrupters for swimming pools and antisuction protections for wading pools in apartment complexes and other residential settings (but not single family residences).
The implied warranty of habitability is not violated merely because the rental unit is not in perfect, aesthetically pleasing condition. Nor is the implied warranty of habitability violated if there are minor housing code violations, which, standing alone, do not affect habitability.
While it is the landlord’s responsibility to install and maintain the inside wiring for one telephone jack, the landlord’s failure to do so probably does not violate the implied warranty of habitability.
An authoritative reference book suggests two additional ways in which the implied warranty of habitability may be violated. The first is the presence of mold conditions in the rental unit that affect the livability of the unit or the health and safety of tenants. The second follows from a new law that imposes obligations on a property owner who is notified by a local health officer that the property is contaminated by methamphetamine. This reference book suggests that a tenant who is damaged by this kind of documented contamination may be able to claim a breach of the implied warranty of habitability.