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Illegal Lease Clauses in California

California law protects tenants from entering into one-sided leases. Any lease provision that forces a tenant to give up their rights is unenforceable.

As a tenant-friendly state, California law goes a long way toward protecting the rights of tenants. State law doesn’t just explain the rights that renters have—it also provides a list of rights a tenant cannot give up, or waive.1 If a landlord tries to get a tenant to waive certain rights in their lease, those parts of the lease are considered illegal terms that can’t be enforced. While the rest of the lease is still valid, tenants can sue landlords for any illegal lease terms that impacted them.

A lease can't shorten the 24-hour entry notice requirement

Tenants must be given at least 24 hours’ written notice before a landlord enters their rental unit, unless there’s an emergency.2 This is true whether a landlord wants to make repairs or show the unit to potential renters. A lease provision that says a landlord doesn’t have to give a tenant advance notice before entering—or only has to provide 12-hour notice, for instance—is illegal.

A lease can’t waive a tenant's right to a security deposit refund

Tenants in California are entitled to a return of their security deposit when they move out of a unit. Landlords must refund a security deposit within 21 days of a tenant moving out—and provide an itemized receipt if any of the security deposit was used to pay for things like repairs, back rent, or cleaning.3 It’s illegal for a lease to contain a provision waiving the tenant’s right to a refund of their security deposit.

A lease can’t prevent tenants from suing their landlords

Tenants always have a right to bring their landlord to court in the event of a dispute. Anything in the lease that forces tenants to arbitrate a dispute instead is illegal. This was confirmed by a 2003 California case involving a landlord who, in his lease, required tenants to arbitrate personal injury claims rather than going to court.4 The provision read, in part:

Any dispute between the parties relating to a claim for personal injury, directly or indirectly relating to, or arising from, the condition of the leased premises, or the apartment community, shall be resolved by arbitration conducted by the American Arbitration Association.

The lease also required the tenant to make a written demand for arbitration within 180 days of the incident. The court found the provision both unconscionable and illegal.

A lease can’t stop tenants from defending themselves in court

In the event of a lawsuit between the landlord and tenant, tenants have the right to defend themselves. Specifically, they have the right to:

  • Be notified of any legal action
  • Hire an attorney
  • Conduct discovery (a.k.a. gather evidence about the case)
  • Be tried by jury
  • Appeal a court’s decision

Landlords can’t include a provision in a lease that prevents tenants from doing any of these things.

A lease can’t waive a landlord's duty to keep the rental habitable

Under something called the implied warranty of habitability, landlords are required to keep their rental units in livable condition. This encompasses things like working utilities, weatherproof windows and roof, and a pest-free property.5 A lease term that waives the landlord's duty to uphold the warranty of habitability is illegal.

Tenants have a right to sue their landlord if their failure to keep the rental in habitable condition leads to property damage or an injury to themselves or their guests. But when it comes to non-residential functions of the rental property—for instance, a pool or game room—courts sometimes allow landlords to waive this right. In a 2011 California case, a landlord was able to waive liability for negligence when a tenant was injured at an on-site exercise facility, since it was a non-core function of the rental property.6

A lease can’t require an early termination fee

It’s illegal for landlords to include a lease provision that requires tenants to pay a specific amount for breaking a lease early.7 If a tenant does end a lease early, landlords can only get the actual damages incurred (which is often the remaining rent due).

Tenants can sue their landlord if harmed by an illegal lease term

A tenant who is harmed in some way by an illegal lease term, whether physically or monetarily, can sue a landlord for damages. Depending on the actual harm caused, a tenant can recover money, the value of any affected property, and attorney’s fees.8

[1] CCR §1953

[2] CCR §1954

[3] CCR §1950.5

[4] Jaramillo v JH Real Estate Partners Inc. (2003)

[5] CCR §1941.1

[6] Lewis Operating Corp. v Superior Court (2011)

[7] CCR §1951.2

[8] CCR §1942.4

The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice.