Fact Sheet 2 - Repair Issues

Common Questions About Repair Issues

Tenants and landlords often ask the Rent Board questions about repair issues. Tenants want to know how they can get the landlord to make needed repairs. If the landlord does not make the needed repairs, tenants want to know what recourse they have against the landlord. On the flip side, landlords want to know how quickly they must respond to a tenant's request for repairs or how they can lawfully gain entry to a tenant's unit in order to make necessary repairs.

Suggestions for Tenants Who Have Repair Problems

How can a tenant get his or her landlord to make repairs?

Rental units are typically business investments for landlords and most landlords want to keep them safe and in good repair. As a resident of the building, a tenant is often in the best position to notice when the property has become unsafe or is in disrepair. A responsible tenant will notify the landlord when repairs are needed in the tenant's rental unit or in the common areas of the building. The tenant should notify the landlord and/or other person responsible for the building, such as the building manager or a property management company.

What is the best way to notify the landlord of damages or defects?

The best way to notify the landlord about needed repairs is by both a telephone call and a letter. The tenant should be as specific as possible in describing the nature of the damage or defects and in stating the urgency of the repair. Ask the landlord to let you know when the repairs will be made and indicate the best time and phone number to reach you. Thirty days may be considered reasonable for some repair work, while one or two days may be reasonable if the problem is critical, such as lack of heat during cold periods or a sewage back up.

How should a tenant deliver a written request for repairs to the landlord?

It is best to send the letter to the landlord, manager, and/or agent by certified mail with return receipt requested. Sending the letter by certified mail is not required by law, but it is the best way to obtain proof of delivery. Alternatively, the tenant can send an email message to the landlord or personally deliver a letter to the landlord and ask for written acknowledgement that the letter was received. The tenant should date the letter and keep a copy to show when notice was given and what was said.

What if the landlord fails to respond to the tenant's phone call or letter?

If the landlord does not respond to the tenant's phone call or letter within a week or so, the tenant should call again and write a second letter and state that as a last resort, he or she may call a San Francisco building or health inspector to file a complaint. In addition, the tenant should notify the landlord that s/he might also file a petition with the Rent Board for a rent adjustment if the repairs are not made by a specific date that is reasonable. The tenant should document all efforts to get the repairs done, keep copies of all letters sent and received, and keep a log of all phone calls and what was said. This information will be helpful for proving your case in a Rent Board hearing if one is necessary.

If the repairs are not performed within a reasonable time, what can the tenant do?

If the repairs are not made within a reasonable time, the tenant should contact the Department of Building Inspection or the Department of Public Health to request an inspection. Be sure to obtain a copy of the inspection report and any Notice of Violation that is issued by the inspector. The tenant should stay in touch with the inspector until the repairs are completed.

The tenant may also file a Tenant Petition at the Rent Board for a rent reduction if the conditions constitute a substantial decrease in housing services. If the tenant's petition is granted, the rent reduction is usually retroactive and begins with the date the tenant first notified the landlord of the problem. In addition, if the inspector determines that the defective conditions constitute a code violation, the tenant may ask the Rent Board to defer a proposed rent increase until the repairs are made. Such a claim must be filed within 60 days of receiving a notice of proposed rent increase.

Can the Rent Board require a landlord to make repairs?

No, the Rent Board cannot require a landlord to make repairs or to perform maintenance work. Only a city inspector can order a landlord to perform needed repairs or maintenance. The Rent Board can only adjust a tenant's rent based on a lack of repairs and/or maintenance. However, if the tenant files a Rent Board petition, the Rent Board will attempt to help the tenant and landlord resolve their dispute through our voluntary mediation process. During a mediation session, the parties will meet with an experienced Rent Board mediator who can help them reach agreement on a repair schedule and also help them determine a corresponding rent reduction if the repairs are not performed as agreed.

If the landlord doesn't make the requested repairs, can the tenant simply withhold rent? Alternatively, can the tenant make the repairs and deduct the cost from the rent?

The Rent Ordinance does not authorize a tenant to withhold rent when a landlord fails to make repairs, nor does it permit a tenant to make needed repairs and deduct the cost from the rent. These remedies are covered exclusively by state law. Tenants should seek the advice of an attorney before withholding rent due to needed repairs, since such rent withholding may result in eviction proceedings being brought against the tenant by the landlord for non-payment of rent.

The issues of rent withholding and the "repair and deduct" remedy are covered in the California Tenants handbook, published by the California Department of Consumer Affairs. A complete copy of the California Tenants handbook ("A Guide to Residential Tenants' and Landlords' Rights and Responsibilities") is available as a consumer-related document at the Department of Consumer Affairs website at www.dca.ca.gov.

Can a tenant file a lawsuit against the landlord if the landlord does not make the repairs within a reasonable time?

Provided that certain conditions are met, a tenant can file a lawsuit against the landlord based on a lack of repairs and maintenance. The Rent Board staff cannot provide legal advice, nor answer questions regarding a lawsuit based on defective conditions. If the tenant files in Small Claims Court, the claim cannot exceed $7,500.00. California law prohibits attorneys from representing another person at a Small Claims Court hearing. Tenants may wish to seek the advice of an attorney before filing a lawsuit in Superior Court.

Suggestions for Landlords Who Need to Make Repairs

How quickly must the landlord respond to a tenant's request for repairs?

A landlord should make repairs promptly, within a reasonable amount of time. What constitutes a reasonable amount of time depends on the circumstances. Thirty days may be considered reasonable for some repair work, while one or two days may be reasonable if the problem is critical, such as lack of heat during cold periods or a sewage back up. If a City inspector has issued a Notice of Violation (NOV) based on the defective condition, the NOV will specify when the repairs must be completed. Even if the repair cannot be made immediately, a landlord should be prompt in responding to a tenant's complaint. A quick response lets the tenant know the landlord is concerned and helps maintain a good relationship with the tenant. Failure to make repairs within a reasonable time could subject the landlord to liability.

Can a landlord gain entry to a tenant's unit in order to make necessary repairs?

Yes. Under state law, a landlord may enter a tenant's rental unit in the following circumstances:

  • In case of emergency;
  • To make necessary or agreed upon repairs, decorations, alterations or other improvements;
  • To show the rental unit to prospective or actual purchasers, mortgagees, tenants, contractors or repair persons;
  • Upon the request of the tenant, to make an inspection of the unit within two weeks before the tenant vacates to determine what costs, if any, will be deducted from the tenant's security deposit if the tenant does not remedy identified deficiencies;
  • When the tenant has moved out or has abandoned the rental unit; or,
  • If a court order permits the landlord to enter.

The landlord cannot abuse the right of access or use it to harass the tenant.

Must the landlord give the tenant written notice before entering the unit to make repairs?

Tenants must be provided with at least 24-hours written notice before the landlord enters the unit. If the written notice is mailed, it must be mailed at least six days prior to the entry. In an emergency, written notice is not required.

What should the landlord state in the written notice?

The notice should clearly state the time and date of entry, the repairs to be done, and the expected length of time it will take to do the repairs.

Can a tenant agree to waive the notice requirement?

The tenant may waive the 24-hour notice requirement and can allow entry without the required written notice if he or she agrees to such entry. The landlord can enter the rental unit only during normal business hours, unless the tenant agrees to another time.

What can the landlord do if a tenant refuses to give the landlord access to the unit?

If a tenant unreasonably refuses to give the landlord access to the unit, that could be the basis for a "just cause" eviction under the Rent Ordinance. Landlords and tenants should consult an attorney about their rights in specific cases.

June 2006