Communication is the key to avoiding and resolving problems. If you have a problem with your rental unit, it's usually best to talk with your landlord before taking other action. Your landlord may be willing to correct the problem or to work out a solution. By the same token, the landlord (or the landlord's agent or manager) should discuss problems with the tenant before taking formal action. The tenant may be willing to correct the problem once he or she understands the landlord's concerns. Both parties should bear in mind that each has the duty to deal with the other fairly and in good faith (see Landlord's and tenant's duty of good faith and fair dealing).
If discussing the problem with the landlord doesn't solve it, and if the problem is the landlord's responsibility (see Dealing with Problems), you should write a letter or send an e-mail to the landlord. The letter or e-mail should describe the problem, its effect on you, how long the problem has existed, what you may have done to remedy the problem or limit its effect, and what you would like the landlord to do. You should keep a copy of this letter or e-mail.
If you have been dealing with an agent of the landlord, such as a property manager, you may want to directly contact the owner of the rental unit. The name, address and telephone number of the owner and the property manager, or the person who is authorized to receive legal notices for the owner, must be written in your rental agreement (or lease) or posted conspicuously in the building.345 You can also contact your County Assessor's Office for this information.
If you don't hear from the landlord after you send the letter or e-mail, or if the landlord disagrees with your complaint, you may need to use one of the tenant remedies that are discussed in this booklet (such as the repair and deduct remedy, see Having Repairs Made), or obtain legal assistance. The length of time that you should wait for the landlord to act depends on the seriousness of the problem. Normally, 30 days is considered appropriate unless the problem is extremely serious.
REMEMBER: The landlord and the tenant discussing problems with each other can prevent little problems from becoming big ones. Trying to work out problems benefits everybody. Sometimes, it's helpful to involve someone else, such as a mutual friend or a trained arbitrator or mediator (see below). If the problem truly cannot be resolved by discussion, negotiation, and acceptable compromise, then each party can look to the remedies provided by the law.
Many resources are available to help tenants and landlords resolve problems. Check which of the following agencies are available in your area, review their Web sites to determine if they can offer you assistance, or call or write them for information or assistance:
- Local consumer protection agency. See the City and County Government listings in the white pages of the phone book.
- Local housing agency. See the City and County Government listings in the white pages of the phone book.
- Local district attorney's office. See the County Government listings in the white pages of the phone book.
- City or county rent control board. See the City and County Government listings in the white pages of the phone book.
- Local tenant association, or rental housing or apartment association. Check the white (business) and Yellow Pages in the phone book.
- Local tenant information and assistance resources. See Appendix 4.
- Local dispute resolution program. For a list go online to www.dca.ca.gov/consumer/mediation_programs.shtml.
You may also obtain information from the California Department of Consumer Affairs' Consumer Information Center at (800) 952-5210 or (916) 445-1254. For TDD, call (800) 326-2297 or (916) 322-1700. You can also visit the Department of Consumer Affairs' Web site.
Many county bar associations offer lawyer referral services and volunteer attorney programs which can help a tenant locate a low-fee or free attorney. Legal aid organizations may provide eviction defense service to low-income tenants. Some law schools offer free advice and assistance through landlord-tenant clinics.
Tenants should be cautious about using so-called eviction defense clinics or bankruptcy clinics. While some of these clinics may be legitimate and provide good service, others are not legitimate. Some of these clinics may use high-pressure sales tactics, make false promises, obtain your signature on blank forms, take your money, and then do nothing.
These clinics may promise to get a federal stay (also called an automatic stay)of an eviction action. This usually means that the clinic intends to file a bankruptcy petition for the tenant. (See "The Eviction Process, A word about bankruptcy".) While this may stop the eviction temporarily, it can have an extremely bad effect on the tenant's future ability to rent property or to obtain credit, since the bankruptcy will be part of the tenant's credit record for as long as 10 years.
Unlawful detainer assistants (UDAs) are non-lawyers who are in business to provide advice and assistance to landlords and tenants on unlawful detainer issues. UDAs must be registered with the County Clerk's office in the counties where they have their principal place of business and where they do business.346 A tenant who signs a contract with a UDA can cancel the contract within 24 hours after signing it.347
Legal document assistants (LDAs) are non-lawyers who type and file legal documents as directed by people who are representing themselves in legal matters. Similar registration and contract cancellation requirements apply to legal document assistants.348
The fact that a UDA or an LDA is properly registered with the County Clerk does not guarantee that the UDA or LDA has the knowledge or ability to help you.
Some local housing agencies refer landlord-tenant disputes to a local dispute resolution center or mediation service. The goal of these services is to resolve disputes without the burden and expense of going to court.
Mediation involves assistance from an impartial third person, called a mediator, who helps the tenant and landlord reach a voluntary agreement on how to settle the dispute. The mediator normally does not make a binding decision in the case.
Arbitration involves referral of the dispute to an impartial third person, called an arbitrator, who decides the case. If the landlord and tenant agree to submit their dispute to arbitration, they will be bound by the decision of the arbitrator, unless they agree to nonbinding arbitration.
Tenants and landlords should always consider resolving their disputes by mediation or arbitration instead of a lawsuit. Mediation is almost always faster, cheaper, and less stressful than going to court. While arbitration is more formal than mediation, arbitration can be faster, and is usually less stressful and burdensome, than a court action.
Mediation services are listed in the yellow pages of the telephone book under Mediation Services. To obtain a county-by-county listing of dispute resolution services, go online to www.dca.ca.gov/consumer/mediation_programs.shtml.
345 Civil Code Sections 1961, 1962, 1962.5.
346 Business and Professions Code Sections 6400-6415.
347 Business and Professions Code Section 6410(e). The contents of the unlawful detainer assistant's contract are governed by regulation. See 16 California Code of Regulations Section 3890.
348 Business and Professions Code Sections 6400-6415. The contents of the legal document assistant’s contract for self-help services are governed by regulation. See 16 California Code of Regulation, Section 3950.