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If a tenant believes that his or her rental unit needs repairs, and that the landlord is responsible for the repairs under the implied warranty of habitability, the tenant should notify the landlord. Since rental units typically are business investments for landlords, most landlords want to keep them safe, clean, attractive, and in good repair.

It’s best for the tenant to notify the landlord of damage or defects by both a telephone call and a letter. The tenant should specifically describe the damage or defects and the required repairs in both the phone call and the letter. The tenant should date the letter and keep a copy to show that notice was given and what it said.

The tenant should send the notice to the landlord, manager, or agent by certified mail with return receipt requested. Sending the notice by certified mail is not required by law, but is a very good idea. Or, the tenant (or a friend) may personally deliver the notice to the landlord, manager, or agent and ask for a receipt to show that the notice was received. The tenant should keep a copy of the notice and the receipt, or some other evidence that the notice was delivered.

If the landlord doesn’t make the requested repairs, and doesn’t have a good reason for not doing so, the tenant may have one of several remedies, depending on the seriousness of the repairs. These remedies are discussed in the rest of this section. Each of these remedies has its own risks and requirements, so the tenant should use them carefully.

The "repair and deduct" remedy

The "repair and deduct" remedy allows a tenant to deduct money from the rent, up to the amount of one month’s rent, to pay for repair of defects in the rental unit.101 This remedy covers substandard conditions that affect the tenant’s health and safety, and that substantially breach the implied warranty of habitability.102 (See discussion of the implied warranty of habitability.) Examples might include a leak in the roof during the rainy season, no hot running water, or a gas leak.

As a practical matter, the repair and deduct remedy allows a tenant to make needed repairs of serious conditions without filing a lawsuit against the landlord. Because this remedy involves legal technicalities, it’s a good idea for the tenant to talk to a lawyer, legal aid organization, or tenants’ association before proceeding.

The basic requirements and steps for using the repair and deduct remedy are as follows:

1. The defects must be serious and directly related to the tenant’s health and safety.103
2. The repairs cannot cost more than one month’s rent.
3. The tenant cannot use the repair and deduct remedy more than twice in any 12-month period.
4. The tenant or the tenant’s family, guests, or pets must not have caused the defects that require repair.
5. The tenant must inform the landlord, either orally or in writing, of the repairs that are needed. (See Giving the landlord notice.)
6. The tenant must give the landlord a reasonable period of time to make the needed repairs.
What is a reasonable period of time? This depends on the defects and the types of repairs that are needed. The law usually considers 30 days to be reasonable, but a shorter period may be considered reasonable, depending on the situation. For example, if the furnace is broken and it’s very cold outdoors, two days may be considered reasonable (assuming that a qualified repair person is available within that time period).

7. If the landlord doesn’t make the needed repairs within a reasonable period of time, the tenant may either make the repairs or hire someone to do them. The tenant may then deduct the cost of the repairs from the rent when it is due. The tenant should keep all receipts for the repairs.
It’s a good idea, but not a legal requirement, for the tenant to give the landlord a written notice that explains why the tenant hasn’t paid the full amount of the rent. The tenant should keep a copy of this notice.

Risks: The defects may not be serious enough to justify using the repair and deduct remedy. In that event, the landlord can sue the tenant to recover the money deducted from the rent, or can file an eviction action based on the nonpayment of rent. If the tenant deducted money for repairs not covered by the remedy, or didn’t give the landlord proper advance notice or a reasonable time to make repairs, the court can order the tenant to pay the full rent even though the tenant paid for the repairs, or can order that the eviction proceed.

The landlord may try to evict the tenant or raise the rent because the tenant used the repair and deduct remedy. This kind of action is known as a "retaliatory eviction" (see Retaliatory actions and evictions). The law prohibits this type of eviction, with some limitations.104

The "abandonment" remedy

Instead of using the repair and deduct remedy, a tenant can abandon (move out of) a defective rental unit. This remedy is called the "abandonment" remedy. A tenant might use the abandonment remedy where the defects would cost more than one month’s rent to repair,105 but this is not a requirement of the remedy. The abandonment remedy has most of the same requirements and basic steps as the repair and deduct remedy.106

In order to use the abandonment remedy, the rental unit must have substandard conditions that affect the tenant’s health and safety, and that substantially breach the implied warranty of habitability.107 (See discussion of the implied warranty of habitability.) If the tenant uses this remedy properly, the tenant is not responsible for paying further rent once he or she has abandoned the rental unit.108

The basic requirements and steps for lawfully abandoning a rental unit are:

1. The defects must be serious and directly related to the tenant’s health and safety.109
2. The tenant or the tenant’s family, guests, or pets must not have caused the defects that require repair.
3. The tenant must inform the landlord, either orally or in writing, of the repairs that are needed. (See Giving the landlord notice.)
4. The tenant must give the landlord a reasonable period of time to make the needed repairs.
What is a reasonable period of time? This depends on the defects and the types of repairs that are needed. The law usually considers 30 days to be reasonable, but a shorter period may be considered reasonable, depending on the circumstances. For example, if tree roots block the main sewer drain and none of the toilets or drains work, a reasonable period might be as little as one or two days.

5. If the landlord doesn’t make the needed repairs within a reasonable period of time, the tenant should notify the landlord in writing of the tenant’s reasons for moving and then actually move out. The tenant should return all the rental unit’s keys to the landlord. The notice should be mailed or delivered as explained in Giving the landlord notice. The tenant should keep a copy of the notice.
It’s a good idea, but not a legal requirement, for the tenant to give the landlord written notice of the tenant’s reasons for moving out. The tenant’s letter may discourage the landlord from suing the tenant to collect additional rent or other damages. A written notice also documents the tenant’s reasons for moving, which may be helpful in the event of a later lawsuit. If possible, the tenant should take photographs or a video of the defective conditions or have local health or building officials inspect the rental unit before moving. The tenant should keep a copy of the written notice and any inspection reports and photographs or videos.

Risks: The defects may not affect the tenant’s health and safety seriously enough to justify using the remedy. The landlord may sue the tenant to collect additional rent or damages.

The "rent withholding" remedy

A tenant may have another option for getting repairs made - the "rent withholding" remedy.

By law, a tenant is allowed to withhold (stop paying) some or all of the rent if the landlord does not fix serious defects that violate the implied warranty of habitability.110 (See discussion of the implied warranty of habitability.) In order for the tenant to withhold rent, the defects or repairs that are needed must be more serious than would justify use of the repair and deduct and abandonment remedies.111 The defects must be serious ones that threaten the tenant’s health or safety.112

The defects that were serious enough to justify withholding rent in Green v. Superior Court113 are listed below as examples:

Collapse and nonrepair of the bathroom ceiling.
Continued presence of rats, mice, and cockroaches.
Lack of any heat in four of the apartment’s rooms.
Plumbing blockages.
Exposed and faulty wiring.
An illegally installed and dangerous stove.
In the Green case, all of these defects were present, and there also were many violations of the local housing and building codes. In other situations, the defects that would justify rent withholding may be different, but the defects would still have to be serious ones that threaten the tenant’s health or safety.

In order to prove a violation of the implied warranty of habitability, the tenant will need evidence of the defects that require repair. In the event of a court action, it is helpful to have photographs or videos, witnesses, and copies of letters informing the landlord of the problem.

Before the tenant withholds rent, it is a good idea to check with a legal aid organization, lawyer, housing clinic, or tenant program to help determine if rent withholding is the appropriate remedy.

The basic requirements and steps for using the rent withholding remedy are:

1. The defects or the repairs that are needed must threaten the tenant’s health or safety.114
The defects must be serious enough to make the rental unit uninhabitable. For example, see the defects described in the discussion of the Green case above.

2. The tenant, or the tenant’s family, guests, or pets must not have caused the defects that require repair.
3. The tenant must inform the landlord either orally or in writing of the repairs that are needed. (See Giving the landlord notice.)
4. The tenant must give the landlord a reasonable period of time to make the needed repairs.
What is a reasonable period of time? This depends on the defects and the type of repairs that are needed.

5. If the landlord doesn’t make the needed repairs within a reasonable period of time, the tenant can withhold some or all of the rent. The tenant can continue to withhold the rent until the landlord makes the repairs.
How much rent can the tenant withhold? While the law does not provide a clear test for determining how much rent is reasonable for the tenant to withhold, judges in rent withholding cases often use one of the following methods. These methods are offered as examples.

Percentage reduction in rent: The percentage of the rental unit that is uninhabitable is determined, and the rent is reduced by that amount. For example, if one of a rental unit’s four rooms is uninhabitable, the tenant could withhold 25 percent of the rent. The tenant would have to pay the remaining 75 percent of the rent. Most courts use this method.

Reasonable value of rental unit: The value of the rental unit in its defective state is determined, and the tenant withholds that amount. The tenant would have to pay the difference between the rental unit’s fair market value (usually the rent stated in the rental agreement or lease) and the rental unit’s value in its defective state.1

6 The tenant should save the withheld rent money and not spend it. The tenant should expect to have to pay the landlord some or all of the withheld rent once the repairs have been made.
If the tenant withholds rent, the tenant should put the withheld rent money into a special bank account (called an escrow account). The tenant should notify the landlord in writing that the withheld rent money has been deposited in the escrow account, and explain why.


Depositing the withheld rent money in an escrow account is not required by law, but is a very good thing to do for three reasons.

First, as explained under "Risks" below, rent withholding cases often wind up in court. The judge usually will require the tenant to pay the landlord some reduced rent based on the value of the rental unit with all of its defects. Rarely does a judge excuse payment of all rent. Depositing the withheld rent money in an escrow account assures that the tenant will have the money to pay any "reasonable rent" that the court orders.

Second, putting the withheld rent money in an escrow account proves to the court that the tenant didn’t withhold rent just to avoid paying rent. If there is a court hearing, the tenant should bring rental receipts or other evidence to show that he or she has been reliable in paying rent in the past.

Third, most legal aid organizations and lawyers will not represent a tenant who has not deposited the withheld rent money in an escrow account.

Sometimes, the tenant and the landlord will be able to agree on the amount of rent that is reasonable for the time when the rental unit needed repairs. If the tenant and the landlord can’t agree on a reasonable amount, the dispute will have to be decided in court, or resolved in an arbitration or mediation proceeding (see Arbitration and Mediation).

Risks: The defects may not be serious enough to threaten the tenant’s health or safety. If the tenant withholds rent, the landlord may give the tenant an eviction notice (a three-day notice to pay the rent or leave). If the tenant refuses to pay, the landlord will probably go to court to evict the tenant. In the court action, the tenant will have to prove that the landlord violated the implied warranty of habitability.

If the tenant wins the case, the landlord will be ordered to make the repairs, and the tenant will be ordered to pay a reasonable rent. The rent ordinarily must be paid within a few days after the judge makes his or her decision. If the tenant wins, but doesn’t pay the amount of rent ordered when it is due, the judge will enter a judgment for the landlord, and the tenant probably will be evicted. If the tenant loses, he or she will have to pay the rent, probably will be evicted, and may be ordered to pay the landlord’s attorney’s fees.

There is another risk of using rent withholding: if the tenant doesn’t have a lease, the landlord may ignore the tenant’s notice of defective conditions and seek to remove the tenant by giving him or her a 30-day notice to move. This may amount to a "retaliatory eviction" (see Retaliatory actions and evictions).116 The law prohibits retaliatory evictions, with some limitations.117

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