Unless you move straight from your parents’ home or college dorm room into a home you already own, odds are you’re probably going to be signing a lease for residential rental property at some point in your life.  These multipage documents can be so packed with legalese that tenants often just assume the best and sign.

Not surprisingly, many Bay Area landlords present tenants with take-it-or-leave-it leases that are usually one-sided in that they disfavor tenants.  Fortunately, California law protects tenants in this scenario. This blog summarizes the rights a tenant cannot waive (i.e., give up) under California law even if the lease says otherwise.

In other words, if you’ve signed a lease saying you have given up any of these protected rights, the landlord can’t enforce those parts of the lease. The law simply ignores them.

California Civil Code Sections 1942.1 and 1953

Sections 1942.1 and 1953 of the California Civil Code set forth the rights that a tenant cannot give up and include the following:

  1. The right of a tenant to enjoy minimal standards of habitability.  See Cal. Civ. Code § 1942.1.  (In other words, your landlord must always provide you with certain minimum standards set forth by law, including the right to heat maintained in good working order, the right to plumbing and heating facilities maintained in good working order, the right to electrical lighting maintained in good working order, etc.)
  2. The right to have a security deposit returned to you or otherwise be accounted for after you move out.  See Cal. Civ. Code §§ 1953(a)(1), 1950.5.  (In other words, non-refundable security deposits are illegal.)
  3. The right not to have a landlord enter your rental unit except in certain specific instances (e.g., to address emergencies, to show a rental unit to a prospective renter or buyer; or to perform necessary or agreed-upon repairs).  Non-emergencies generally require written notice at least twenty-four hours in advance.  See Cal. Civ. Code §§ 1953(a)(1), 1954.  (In other words, random non-emergency entries by a landlord into your rental unit are usually illegal.)
  4. The right to notices required by law.  See Cal. Civ. Code § 1953(a)(2).
  5. The right to sue your landlord or make your landlord appear at a hearing.  See Cal. Civ. Code § 1953(a)(3); Jaramillo v. JH Real Estate, 111 Cal. App. 4th 394 (2003).  (In other words, a clause in your lease requiring mediation or arbitration before you can file a lawsuit may be unenforceable.)
  6. The right of your landlord to exercise a duty of care to prevent personal injury or personal property damage where that duty is imposed by law.  See Cal. Civ. Code § 1953(a)(4).  (In other words, your landlord cannot avoid legal liability for your personal injuries or property damage in the event of the landlord’s negligence.)

San Francisco Residential Rent Stabilization and Arbitration Ordinance

In addition to those rights under California law, tenants of rental units subject to San Francisco’s Residential Rent Stabilization and Arbitration Ordinance (“the Ordinance”) have even further protection.  With very limited exceptions, these tenants cannot give up any right they are entitled to under the Ordinance.  S.F. Admin. Code § 37.9(e)(“Any waiver by a tenant of rights under this Chapter . . . shall be void as contrary to public policy.”)  These tenants also cannot give up their right to interest on their security deposit.  S.F. Admin. Code § 49.4. (Under California law generally, landlords are not required to pay tenants interest on their security deposit.)

Lease Provisions Awarding Attorney’s Fees to Landlords Only

For tenants with leases in which the tenant is held responsible for the landlord’s attorney’s fees in any dispute arising out of the lease in which the landlord prevails, there is good news:  the law deems any “one-way” attorney fee provision such as this to be reciprocal. SeeCal. Civ. Code § 1717(a).  In other words, if a lease allows only the landlord to recover attorney’s fees in the event of a legal dispute in which a landlord prevails, if the tenant prevails, the tenant can also recover attorney’s fees.

If you have concerns about your lease or believe a provision may be unenforceable under state or local law, contact Tenant Law Group to discuss your tenancy and your rights.

Related Reading

  • Understanding the Implied Covenant of Quiet Enjoyment