California Tenant Rights: Water Damage & Mold

July 09, 2011  |   Legal   |     |   0 Comment

Floods are by far the most common natural disaster in the United States, especially when you consider that flooding is the result of several other “acts of God,” including hurricanes, tsunamis, and earthquakes. Water damage in rental units can also occur as an “act of landlord,” when pipes break, drains clog, and roofs leak. California residents should be mindful of their tenant’s rights with regards to water damage, especially in the disaster-prone state of California.

In California, where a large coastline, vast mountain ranges, desert expanses, and inland floodplains account for the major geographical features, floods are a common occurance. Snowstorms in the Sierra Mountains can melt quickly when spring arrives and the rainy season starts, leading to flooding in the Central Valley. Along the southern California coastline tropical storms can saturate the dry ground, causing flash floods. Northern parts of the state can see over 100 inches of rain between November and April. And all Californians are aware of earthquakes, which can result in tsunamis, broken sewage systems, and other water damage events.

No home is safe from water damage, especially when you consider the fact that water damage can be the result of regular wear and tear to a roof or water heater. As the most populous state California has an abundance of renters. California cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Jose, Sacramento, and San Diego contain a large percentage of the state’s apartment, condo and home renters, who should be particularly mindful of their renter’s rights with regard to water damage. This article will inform California tenants about their legal rights in dealing with water damage to their rental homes.

Why worry about water damage?

Do not underestimate the harmful effects of water damage in your home. Even minor leaks will cause major property damage. Unwanted water intrusion can lead to rotting, pest infestations, stains, and a musty odor.  Mold and mildew can begin to grow within 24 hours of a water damage event. Certain kinds of mold, like “black mold” (Stachybotrys), can be toxic to building occupants. Rotted sections of a home can diminish the structural integrity of the building. Not only can these kinds of water damage events cause health problems and put your family in physical danger, but unless you know your rights as a renter you might be stuck with the bill for repairs or risk losing your deposit at the end of your lease.

What are the California renter’s’ rights?

Tenants in California enjoy all of the basic renter’s rights that you’ll find across the country. In every state, with the exception of Colorado and Arkansas, renters have the right to get needed repairs done by their landlord within a reasonable time. There are a few stipulations that go along with this basic right. Tenants must inform their landlords in writing of the needed repair. In non-emergency cases, the landlord has between 14-30 days to remedy the request. It’s best to send the written request by certified mail, so that it can be proven that the landlord knew about the repair request. Also, landlords are not responsible for fixing personal property or the damage resulting from personal property and acts of negligence on behalf of the tenant or the tenant’s guests. For instance, if you drill a hole in the roof of your apartment and water drained in, you’re responsible for the repair of the roof and any mold that grows because of the water damage.

Tenants also have the right to a habitable living environment. No matter what you landlord might write in the rental agreement, you have the right to a unit that is safe, livable, and fulfils all applicable housing codes. If water damage has caused an infestation of termites, or mold has infested your apartment because of a leaky window, the landlord has to repair these things or else be in violation of his or her obligations as a landlord. As with the repair requests, making a rental unit habitable applies to basic wear and tear to the property, not your actions as a tenant. If you allow trash to pile up in your apartment, causing living conditions to deteriorate, the landlord is not responsible for cleaning your rental unit.

In California, renters have rights to a limited “repair and deduct remedy.”  According to the California Department of Consumer Affairs, if the landlord has failed to fix a serious repair request that renders the building uninhabitable, the tenant has the right to get the needed repairs done on his or her own and then deduct the cost of the repairs from their regular rent payment. Several stipulations apply here, so renters ought to consult an attorney for legal advice before attempting to try a “repair and deduct remedy.” For instance, the cost of the repair must not be more than the monthly cost of rent, and the tenant cannot perform a “repair and deduct” twice within 12 months.

In certain circumstances, the tenant can also perform a “rent withholding remedy,” whereby the tenant does not pay all or a portion of the rent until the landlord fixes a repair. In other circumstances the tenant may be able to implement an “abandonment remedy,” whereby the tenant moves out of the rental unit because the landlord has violated the implied warranty of habitability. As with the “repair and deduct remedy” it’s best to get legal advice before trying these measures because abandonment and failure to pay rent are both cause for eviction.

What are the renter’s rights laws for California cities?

The California Tenants Guide outlines the basic rights of tenants for the state of California, but certain county and city-specific policies may apply. For instance, in San Francisco tenants must have an inspector from the Department of Building Inspections review the property before the tenant can proceed with a “rent withholding” or “deduct and repair” remedy. Also, the repair time limit in San Francisco is 35 days. Other jurisdictions in California will have their own interpretations of the standard renter’s rights. Some may give more rights to renters, and some may favor landlords. Check with your local housing authority and health and human services department to find out the specific rules for your community.

Renter’s Insurance: Does It Cover Water Damage?

Because flooding is so common, insurance companies oftentimes leave flood and water damage coverage out of their standard policies. With few exceptions homeowners insurance and renter’s insurance will leave you high and dry when you’re underwater (no pun intended). It’s always a good idea to consider renter’s insurance to protect yourself against different kinds of losses—burglary, fire, acts of terrorism—but you must make sure that flooding and water damage are a part of the policy you select. There’s a reason why insurance companies don’t want to cover you (and why they don’t want to tell you they’re not covering you) for water damage. Water damage is pervasive and costly. While landlords can be forced to fix repairs to the structure of a building, it’s much harder to get them to pay the bill for personal property losses without a good renter’s insurance policy that covers water damage.

Should you consider water damage restoration?

Even a small amount of water damage can lead to a big headache for California tenants. Hiring a professional to perform water damage repair—also called water damage remediation—will make certain you’re living in a safe, healthy environment. Mold can grow where water damage has occurred. If this is the case, mold remediation specialists should conduct the water damage and mold clean-up to make certain the occupants of the building do not inhale additional mold spores. When untrained landlords or maintenance crews attempt the removal of mold they can actually agitate the mold sites, causing them to release more harmful mold particles (spores) into the air. Make sure your landlord uses a certified mold and water damage restoration company. Get your apartment or house serviced by professional industrial hygiene experts so you and your family are forced to endure hazardous living conditions. In California you have the right to a safe and habitable rental unit.


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