Winter Rains Bring Water Leaks: What Should You Do?

El Nino is back! These days of nearly nonstop rain means that water leaks can strike. The landlord is required to provide a weatherproofed dwelling, of course, but what to do when the landlord will not respond promptly to a complaint? Or when damage to tenant property result? Here’s more on the landlord’s obligation to provide a ‘tenantable’ dwelling.

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, broken windows, and improperly sealed air conditioner installations. When the heavy weather rolls in, we can see which owners have failed to invested in the maintenance of their housing.And tenants will suffer: leaks, property damage and inconvenience (to say nothing of unpleasant interactions with bad landlords).

Witness the tarp on 205 South Reeves Drive. [Update: as of June it’s been there for five months!] Why would a tarp cover a roof that is supposed to keep out rain? Because some landlords put profit before maintenance to maximize their cash flow. And it shows.

State law requires that every landlord ensure that his premises are fit for human occupation. It’s called a warranty of habitability, and it includes weatherproofing.

The Implied Warranty of Habitability

The ‘implied warranty of habitability’ is the assurance that the tenant can expect her premises to be ‘tenantable.’ That entails not only hot and cold running water, heat, plumbing, gas and electrical lighting, but also waterproofing and weatherproofing (Civil Code section 1941.1):

A dwelling shall be deemed untenantable for purposes of Section 1941 if it substantially lacks any of the following affirmative standard characteristics or is a residential unit described in Section 17920.3 or 17920.10 of the Health and Safety Code: (1) Effective waterproofing and weather protection of roof and exterior walls, including unbroken windows and doors....

Weatherproofing is the first requirement of a tenantable dwelling under state law. That means “unbroken doors and windows” that are properly sealed against the elements. Yet time and again we see instances where the basic standards of habitability like effective weatherproofing is not met.

Take for example take 126 North Almont. The negligence is clearly shown in the broken and dilapidated windows that can’t be expected to keep the weather out.

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

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. Some recently even sport tarps atop the roof to keep the rain out.

Remedies for Substandard Dwellings

City of Beverly Hills complaint-driven code enforcement means that the city depends on tenants to be volunteer code inspectors; we have to report these conditions ourselves because the city does little ‘proactive’ inspecting.

When a dwelling falls short, the landlord is expected to make a ‘reasonably timely’ repair once notified. Again, this is not about an everyday repair like a broken doorbell; here we’re concerned with the ‘tenantable’ standard under state law, which includes weatherproofing.

However ‘reasonably timely’ is not a very specific performance standard. Unlike, say, the date that the rent is due, landlords are under no obligation to make an immediate fix. In fact a landlord can stall a repair for weeks or even months. But the tenant does have some recourse for a breach of the implied warranty of habitability: withholding the rent; repair and deduct (though we caution against it); and even breaking a lease if necessary.

Civil Code section 1942 explains repair-and-deduct:

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.

The Civil Code 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 under state law.

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. To vacate or break a lease, the public authority must have been notified too. In Beverly Hills that authority is 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.)

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). Make sure to get a complaint number or some other documentation.

Or file a complaint online. Use our guide. Online filing is useful because the complaint comes with reference number.

Finally, file a small claims case if the landlord is unresponsive to a damage claim. Small claims is a venue where neither the tenant nor the landlord is represented by counsel and the judge can order payment immediately.