Winter Rains Are Here. That Means Water Leaks for Tenants!

El Nino is back! The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has issued a flash flood advisory with as much as a half-inch to three-quarter-inch of rain expected into Friday. Our days of nearly nonstop rain means that water leaks can strike. Leaks from broken windows. Improperly sealed air conditioners. From the roof behind cupboards and in closets. Not every landlord is responsive to a complaint about a water leak even thought the law is clear: the rental agreement implies a warranty of habitability, and that means proper weatherproofing. Let’s recap the remedies available to the tenant if the premises don’t meet that standard.

umbrellas in the hallway
You know the rain is bad when the hallway turns into an umbrella zoo!

Days of heavy rain can trigger leaks from poorly-maintained roofs and pose a test for older windows that are not sufficiently weatherproofed. When the heavy weather rolls in, we can see which owners have not reinvested in the housing they rent to tenants. Some prefer to defer maintenance in order to maximize their cash flow. And it shows.

The rainy season is also a reminder that state law puts the obligation on a landlord to ensure that every unit they provide is habitable. As the helpful California Tenants Guide states so simply, “A rental unit must be fit to live in.” The bare state standard for habitability is not a high bar to meet. But it does at least mandate protection against the elements.

The Implied Warranty of Habitability

Every rental agreement includes an ‘implied warranty of habitability.’ This is the assurance that the tenant can expect the premises to be habitable under state law. That entails providing hot and cold running water, heat, facilities for plumbing and gas in good repair, and electrical lighting (per Civil Code section 1941.1).

More to the point, state law mandates that every dwelling be effectively waterproofed and weather-protected. That means “unbroken doors and windows” that are properly sealed against the elements. (It seems incredible that the law has to actually spell that out.) Yet time and again we see instances where the basic standards of habitability like effective weatherproofing is not met. This property at 126 North Almont is an excellent example of negligent maintenance.

126 N Almont window
Peeling paint, rotted window jambs, and dry, flaking putty all allow moisture to come in.

These days of torrential rain are a reminder that problems do arise and some landlords do not take due care to fix them. Indeed a walking tour of any multifamily neighborhood will turn up evidence of poorly-maintained roofs, clogged downspouts, and even visible water damage on the exterior. Unfortunately, our complaint-driven code enforcement system means that the city depends on tenants to report these conditions.

Remedies for Substandard Dwellings

For the dwelling that falls short of the elemental habitability requirements enumerated in state law, the landlord is expected to make a ‘reasonably timely’ repair once notified (orally or in writing). Again, that is not about an everyday repair like a broken doorbell; habitability means heat, hot water, safe premises and weatherproofing.

However ‘reasonably timely’ is not a very specific standard for performance. (In contrast, the law is quite specific when it comes to the rent due date and the sanctions that follow non-payment.)

Still, a tenant does have some recourse when the landlord breaches the implied warranty of habitability. These include withholding rent if the tenant is forced to make a repair. Section 1942 explains:

If within a reasonable time after written or oral notice to the landlord or his agent…of dilapidations rendering the premises untenantable which the landlord ought to repair, the landlord neglects to do so, the tenant may repair the same himself where the cost of such repairs does not require an expenditure more than one month’s rent of the premises and deduct the expenses of such repairs from the rent when due… — Civil Code §1942(a)

“Reasonable time” here is 30 days — an awful long time if a leak has sprung! Especially if that leak creates additional problems for the tenant: damaged possessions, loss of a bedroom, perhaps, and maybe even a claim on the renters’ insurance policy that comes with a heavy deductible.

So the law allows for repair-and-deduct, but that does come with some conditions and should be carefully considered. (Withholding rent under any circumstance can invite a 3-day notice, and after than an unlawful detainer. At that point things become much more complicated than a water leak.)

The law also allows the tenant to vacate the premises — even breaking the lease if a repair is not made within those 30 days:

…the tenant may vacate the premises, in which case the tenant shall be discharged from further payment of rent, or performance of other conditions as of the date of vacating the premises. — Civil Code §1942(a)

In fact a landlord cannot lawfully collect rent on a dwelling that does not meet the tenantable standard including. Again that includes, but is not limited to, a problem related to insufficient weatherproofing.

What to Do When You Find a Leak

The remedies afforded the tenant come with a big condition: the tenant must have notified the landlord of the problem; and in order to vacate or break a lease the public authority must be notified too. In Beverly Hills that means code enforcement.

When a leak is discovered the first step is to notify the landlord. In writing! Hopefully your landlord has provided a 24-hour line for emergencies (or at least a reliable management contact). Document the problem with images and document every correspondence or conversation with the landlord or manager about the problem. (Documentation of all communications is especially important where a property manager is involved. A poor manager can add to the problem.)

If the leak is the product of an ill-fitting window, crack in the window sill or some other source, follow the landlord’s prescribed steps for reporting a problem. (There are prescribed steps, aren’t there?) Water is a problem no matter where it emanates from.

The next step is to call the Rent Stabilization Office at (310) 285-1031. The office is a gateway for all rental property related issues. It is important they are kept in the loop where substandard conditions or deferred maintenance is concerned. The agency will likely refer the problem to the Community Preservation Division (aka code enforcement).

The Community Preservation division is generally responsive to these kinds of tenant complaints. So file a complaint online using our guide. Online filing is useful because the complaint comes with reference number. That’s handy when the landlord is no so responsive.

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