If there is a serious issue in your rental unit in California—and it would cost more than a month of rent to fix—then you can withhold rent payments until it's repaired. However, before you take action, make sure that the problem is covered by California's warranty of habitability (and wasn't caused by you or any of your guests). You also need to ask city housing inspectors to come and look at your building and unit, since you'll need their official documentation of the problem.
How much rent can I withhold?
If you withhold rent, then your landlord may try to evict you and you will end up in front of a judge, where you'll have to justify your decision. Most judges will use one of the following two methods1 to determine how much rent you should have been withheld:
Percentage reduction: This method is most common. The court will determine what percentage of your rental unit is uninhabitable and you will be able to withhold that percent of the rent. If a flooding bathroom is your problem and your bathroom is one of five rooms in your unit, you will be allowed to withhold one fifth, or 20%, or the rent.
Reasonable value: The court will determine what the value of your unit is in its defective state and ask you to pay the difference between the rent stated in your lease and the current value of the home with the repairs needed.
Do these calculations yourself and document them carefully before you withhold the rent.
Where should I keep the rent money I'm withholding?
Some states legally require you to place any rent withheld into an escrow account. While California does not have this law, it’s a good idea to do this in case your landlord tries to take you to court for unpaid rent. Placing the amount you withheld into a separate savings account will show the court that you didn’t just withhold rent to get some extra spending money or because you couldn’t make the payment.
What are the possible outcomes for withholding rent?
When you withhold rent, you will end up either coming to an agreement with your landlord regarding how much the rent should have been reduced during the period of the issue—until they fixed it—or they will evict you and you will end up in court.
If the issue goes to court, a judge usually will you to pay some amount of reduced rent. (It's unlikely that they will let you off the hook completely.) You will have five days or less after the court's judgement to pay the rent.
Do I have any other options?
If the repair would cost less than a month's rent, you could make the repair yourself and deduct the cost from your rent. Or, if the issue is getting really serious, you may need to consider constructive eviction.
The information provided on this website does not, and is not intended to, constitute legal advice.