Tips for Tenants

Tip #1: What should you do if you can’t pay your rent?

One of the worst feelings in the world is knowing that you have no way to pay your upcoming rent. You look at the calendar and dread the first of the month arriving. For whatever reason, you simply don’t have enough money. You don’t have anyone else to borrow the money from. If you did, then you would have borrowed the money. Perhaps you are already in debt to several friends and family members, so you definitely know that you have nowhere to go. In all likelihood, you have no way to use your credit card to pull any more money off of it. So what do you do?

Don’t Panic!

First, don’t panic. You are going to get through this, even if it seems impossible. But if thoughts of suicide have crossed your mind, then you need to stop reading this article and immediately call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255 or visit their website at https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/. Life has problems, but your life is uniquely special. People around you love you and want to see you through this difficult time. So if you need help, then get it. Alternatively, speak to your pastor, priest, or rabbi about your situation, for they will help you get some perspective on the matter.

The next thing that you need to do is to alert your landlord (or the manager of the apartment complex) that you are not going to be able to pay your rent on time. This can be embarrassing, but it is the best thing that you can do for a number of reasons. First, the landlord will appreciate your honesty. For landlords typically have to pay mortgage payments for the place that you rent, so if you are not going to be able to pay your rent, then your landlord has to plan for an alternative way to pay the mortgage. Plus, no one likes to be lied to. It won’t get you any favor. So don’t start lying to your landlord.

If you tell your landlord that you won’t be able to pay your rent on time, then the landlord is likely to work with you because your landlord doesn’t want to evict you, unless it is a last choice. It costs a lot of money to evict tenants. And then the landlord has to turn around and advertise the place for rent to find a new tenant. The longer it takes to get a new tenant, the more money the landlord loses. Good landlords, quite frankly, are thus willing to work with tenants who run into financial troubles. Some landlords, out of the goodness of their hearts, are willing to help tenants. Other landlords may be less sympathetic, but they, too, understand that financial issues come up from time-to-time in life. So, be honest.

Unemployment

Sometimes a tenant doesn’t have the ability to pay the rent because of a job loss. If that’s the case, then immediately apply for unemployment insurance. If you are a California resident, then you will need to visit the Employment Development Department’s website at: edd.ca.gov. Once you are in the website, then click on “Claims” at the top of the page. This will take you to another page, where you will see a banner that states “Unemployment Insurance” with a number of links under it. Click on the link entitled, “File a New UI claim.” Once you are there, then it will explain what you need to do to file a new unemployment insurance claim.

If you quickly apply for unemployment, then you should be able to get money relatively quickly, so that you can begin paying your rent while you look for a new job. Keep your landlord posted of your efforts to get unemployment. When you file for unemployment, then shoot your landlord an email letting them know that you have applied for unemployment. This will make it far less likely that a landlord will begin to try to evict you. But if you don’t keep the landlord informed about your efforts to get unemployment insurance, then the landlord is going to be a lot more likely to start the process to evict you.

Three-Day Notices

If you don’t pay your rent on time, then your landlord is going to serve you with a Three-Day Notice to Pay or Quit. This is the first thing that a landlord has to do to start the eviction process. Important: The Three-Day Notice to Pay or Quit does not mean that you have to move out of your home in three days. It simply means that you have three more days until the landlord can file an eviction lawsuit against you. (Technically, you have four days (today + three days) to bring your rent current. And if one of those days falls on the weekend, then you may get additional time. If in doubt, then contact your local County Bar Association (e.g., L.A. County Bar Association) and ask for a referral for a landlord-tenant lawyer.) So if you can come up with all the rent before those three days expire, then the landlord cannot start the eviction process. By the way, the Three-Day Notice to Pay or Quit literally gives you the option of moving out of your apartment within three days’ time to avoid having the landlord start the eviction process. To be candid, this is rarely the best choice for a tenant. Why? Because it throws your whole life into utter chaos. Unless you are a young, single adult with parents who would welcome you home with open arms, then I recommend that you not make such a sudden decision.

Bankruptcy

Some tenants, in a panic, decide to file bankruptcy in hopes of stopping an eviction. While bankruptcy does temporarily stop an eviction, it is just that: a temporary fix. Eventually, the landlord will be allowed by the bankruptcy court to evict you. In the end, you will be evicted and your credit will be severely damaged. Put simply, filing bankruptcy to stop an eviction is simply too high a price to pay.

Churches

If you are facing temporary money problems, then contact your local church and see if they can help you. Don’t be afraid to contact the church, even if you have never attended before. Many churches help people who are in financial trouble. Churches may also give you some training to help you with your budget, so that you don’t have this trouble again.

Homeless Shelters

If worst comes to worst, then you may want to start looking into moving into a homeless shelter. While this can be embarrassing and hard to accept, it is going to keep you from having to move into your car or onto the streets. Simply type “homeless shelter” and the county in which you live, and you quickly will find a list of them.

Tip #2: A Picture is Worth a Thousand Words

One of the first things that you want to do when you move into a new place is to start taking pictures. Lots of pictures. Why do you want to take lots of pictures? Because you want to prove what the condition of the home or apartment was when you first rented it. And since your phone has so much capacity, it’s not going to hurt you to take 50-100 pictures (or more).

When you first move into a place, the landlord normally is going to give you a form to fill out. Most of the time, tenants fill that thing out without really thinking about the boxes that they are checking. But when it comes time to move out, the landlord is going to inspect your place with a fine-toothed comb. I remember one of my landlords zinging me because the hood over the stove was dirty underneath. To be frank, I had never looked under the hood when we first moved into the place, so I have no idea how dirty it was when we first moved in. And since I had no pictures, I couldn’t prove that I had not made the mess. To make a long story short, I had to pay to have it cleaned.

Wouldn’t it be simpler to take a video? Actually, no. Why? Because the only time that you would ever use that video would be if you were suing your landlord to get your deposit back. And although videos can be played in courtrooms, it is much easier to use pictures, especially since the judge isn’t going to give you much time to present your case. In other words, the judge is likely to tell you, “I’m sorry, but if you can’t get that figured out really quickly, then we are going to have to move on.”

The bottom line is that you want to be able to show your pictures, not to the judge, but to your landlord during your move-out inspection. That’s when your pictures are most effective. Imagine if the flooring in the bathroom had a big slice in it or the tile was cracked on the day your rented the place. When the landlord does the move-out inspection and finds it, you can be sure that you will be charged for it, unless it appears on the move-in inspection that you filled out when you first moved in. But if you didn’t really see it–and forgot to mention it–then you want to be able to look at all the pictures that you took of that floor on day one. If the big slice or the cracked tile is in the picture, then the landlord will have proof right then and there that you did not cause that damage.

In closing, a picture is worth a thousand words. And 50-100 pictures or more are likely to protect you from being accused of damage that you did not do.

Tip #3: What to Do When Your Landlord Refuses to Make Required Maintenance Repairs

One of the benefits of renting an apartment instead of owning a home is that when something goes wrong with the apartment (for example, the hot water heater goes out), tenants are able to call the landlord to get the problem fixed. But what happens when a tenant calls the landlord to have a problem fixed, and the landlord never fixes it or simply refuses to fix it? What is a tenant to do in that situation? Let’s take a look at what California law has to say.

First, a warranty of habitability is implied in all residential rental agreements. As such, the landlord has an obligation to maintain leased dwellings in a habitable condition throughout the tenancy. This right to habitability cannot be waived by a tenant.

So, a landlord cannot force a new or existing tenant to sign away their rights to have a habitable apartment. That’s illegal. If your landlord has tried to get you to sign away your rights to a habitable apartment, then call a lawyer. As a tenant, you are rightfully entitled to rent a dwelling that is habitable.

What is a “habitable” apartment or home? According to California law, a dwelling unit is deemed to be uninhabitable if it: 1) substantially lacks any of the affirmative standard characteristics prescribed by Civil Code §1941.1; or 2) is a substandard unit as described in Health and Safety Code §17920.3; or 3) contains lead hazards (Health and Safety Code §17920.10).

Affirmative Standard Characteristics

What are the affirmative standard characteristics prescribed by Civil Code §1941.1? Here is what a landlord is required to provide to all tenants (at all times):

• Weather protection (including unbroken windows and doors);
• Plumbing and gas;
• Water (hot and cold water and connected to a sewage disposal system);
• Heating;
• Electrical lighting (with wiring and electrical equipment in good order);
• Clean and sanitary premises (free from filth, garbage, rodents, and vermin (bugs));
• Trash facilities;
• Floors, stairways, and railings;
• Locking mail receptacles.

All of the above items must be kept in good working condition throughout the term of the lease. In other words, it is not enough for a landlord to provide a tenant with an apartment (or home) that has all of the above characteristics, but then expect the tenant to keep them in good working order from then on. That’s not the law. The landlord always has to maintain the above in good working order–from day one to the last day that the tenant lives in the apartment or home. It is the landlord’s duty, not the tenant’s. The tenant’s rent includes these services.

For example, if the hot water heater is in perfect condition on day one of the lease, but breaks down two years later, then it is the landlord’s obligation to fix it. It is not the tenant’s obligation to fix it or buy a new hot water heater.

The only time that the tenant is going to be responsible for something is if the tenant did something wrong that caused the problem. For example, if the tenant’s child threw a rock through their window, then it is the tenant’s obligation to fix the window. It is not the landlord’s obligation to fix the window in that situation.

Normal wear and tear is the landlord’s obligation to fix. For example, if the tenant opens her front door every day for seven years, and one day the door breaks due to normal wear and tear, then it is the landlord’s obligation to fix the door.

What if the landlord won’t fix it?

Sometimes a landlord will either fail to fix something or will refuse to fix something. What is a tenant to do in that situation? First, the tenant should always put repair requests in writing. (Be sure to keep a copy for yourself as proof that you gave it to the landlord.)

Next, if the landlord fails to fix the problem, then send the landlord a second written request. It may be that the landlord never got your first request or that the landlord simply forgot it or is behind schedule. Your goal here, obviously, is to get the problem fixed. You are not looking to file a lawsuit (that’s a last resort).

If the landlord refuses to fix the problem, then call the city or county Code Enforcement or Code Compliance and file a complaint. This normally will result in a government officer coming to your apartment or home to inspect the problem. If there is a problem, then the government officer will send a notice of the violation to the owner. The owner then will have a short period of time (usually 30 days or less) to fix the problem. If the owner does not fix the problem, then the city likely will issue a citation to the owner.

If the owner still does not take corrective measures, then this is a good time to call a lawyer. It may be that your best option at that point will be to file a lawsuit for the landlord’s failure to fix the problem.