Online Tenant's Guide: Before You Sign a Lease

Rental Applications:

Even before you sign a lease, prospective tenants (that’s you!) have protections under state and federal law.

Landlords may charge you a screening or application fee to obtain personal reference checks and consumer credit reports. You can (and should) request a copy of your credit report. You must receive an itemized receipt detailing the cost of the screening (out-of-pocket expenses and time spent) and a refund of any unused portion of the fee. (Civil Code Section 1950.6)

The maximum tenant screening fee for 2022 was $60.73. A landlord may charge $30 per applicant plus an annual adjustment based on the Consumer Price Index.

Make sure you’re honest about your rental history when applying for a new place. A landlord may legally reject your rental application based on negative references from previous landlords.

Landlords may not reject your rental application based on your source of income or immigration status. This includes public assistance such as the federal housing assistance voucher programs, or “Section 8.”

If you find a landlord that says “no Section 8,” report them to the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing using the California Civil Rights System. The form may look intimidating, but it isn’t hard to fill out, and completing it will go a long way towards making our community a more affordable place for renters!

Leasing Agreements

Required Information
In theory a lease should be a fairly simple document that establishes basic rules between you and your landlord. A lease should establish:
  • Your name and contact information
  • Where the renter should park, any extra storage, and other details
  • Any deposits and fees
  • Your repair and maintenance responsibilities
  • Any legal limits on your behavior
  • Your landlord’s name and contact information
  • Whether or not the rental allows pets
  • How long the lease you are signing is good for
  • How to pay and calculate utilities
  • When and how your landlord may enter your rental property
  • Limits on the use of the property
  • The location of the rental property
  • Who has to pay the legal fees in a potential lawsuit
  • How much rent is to be paid and on what date
  • The condition of the rental unit
  • What to do if you’re planning on leaving for an extended period of time
  • Whether or not you can run a business out of the property
  • A reference for the Megan's Law Database
(Civil Code Section 1954, 1940.9, 1947.5, Health & Safety Code Section 1957.40)
Prohibited Requirements
You should read your lease carefully and make sure you understand it before signing. Just because it's in the lease doesn’t mean it's legal. For example, there’s no such thing as a “Non-refundable security deposit.” Here’s a list of illegal terms to look out for:
  • Any attempt by the landlord to have you give up your rights
  • Any attempt to get rid of rent-control laws
  • Any attempt to limit your right to re-enter your apartment EVEN IF you haven’t paid your rent. (if you haven’t been served the proper papers) (3)
  • Any attempt to try to force you to pay your rent in cash (5)
  • Any attempt by the landlord to limit their responsibility for damages and injuries. (1)
  • Any attempt to get rid of your right to know that you’re being evicted. (1)
  • Any attempt to limit your right to appeal an eviction in front of a jury or limit your right to appeal the decision the jury makes. (1)
  • Any attempt to make you responsible for repairs in the unit. (6)
  • Any attempt to limit your right to “self-help” repair. (check out the Repairs and Maintenance section)
  • Any attempt by the landlord to limit your right to privacy (see the privacy section) (1, 2)
  • Any attempt to change the amount of time between when you are served eviction papers and when those papers take effect. (4)

1 Civil Code Section 1953  | 2 Civil Code Section 1954 | 3 Civil Code Section 1953(a)(4)  |  4 Civil Code Section 1946.1  |  5 Civil Code Section 1947.3  |  6 Civil Code Section 1942.1

Don’t be afraid to ask questions! You should ask about anything in the lease that seems strange. It’s better to know that an apartment or a landlord isn’t going to work for you now before you've moved in and signed papers.

Do not sign things that are false in your lease. (e.g., if you have a pet, do not sign that you do not have one; make sure all the people who will live in the apartment are listed; if there are bad conditions, do not sign that the place is in good condition)

There is also a possibility that a potential landlord could try to get you to agree to an unwritten lease. While oral agreements are a legal and enforceable form of contract, it is probably safer to get your lease in writing. If you can’t get your lease in writing, make sure to write down what you and your landlord agreed to. You can send this to your landlord in an email. That email can then be used as documentation in case you end up going to court. This is a strategy that can be used in a lot of other situations too!

Get a receipt of payment for your security deposit. It’s probably a good idea to decide where you’ll store documents at this point. A waterproof, sealable folder is probably safest! Alternately, you can take pictures with your phone and save them as a PDF.
Security Deposits
It’s very likely that your new landlord is going to require you to pay a security deposit. They’re not very complicated. but there are a few basic things you should know about them that will keep you from paying too much or not getting enough back.

First, it’s important to know that in California there is no such thing as a “non-refundable security deposit.” Even “pet-deposits” are refundable. Legally, “cleaning deposit,” “pet deposit,” “last month’s rent,” and “key deposits” are all the same thing and CAN’T total more than two month’s rent for an unfurnished apartment. The legal definition of unfurnished is “without sufficient furniture and furnishings for normal living purposes.” Your landlord can’t just put a single chair in an otherwise empty room and claim that the apartment was furnished. For furnished units that amount increases to three months’ rent. This is in addition to paying your first month's rent.

Second, there are a limited number of things that your landlord can use your security deposit for. Unpaid rent, cleaning, and repairs are the three main things that will reduce the amount of your deposit that you get back. They can only charge you for repairs in-excess of normal wear and tear. This means that if you haven’t done something like put a big hole in any of the walls, it’s likely that you’re entitled to most of your deposit. Make sure that you schedule a walk-through of your apartment both when you move into your apartment and when you move out. Take a look at the Moving Out section for more info.

Finally, when you move out your landlord will have 21 days to get your security deposit back to you. If they don’t give you back your whole deposit, they’re required to include a list of everything they charged you for. If they don’t provide you with this list or you disagree with what they have charged you for, your best course of action is going to be to take them to small claims court.
Subleasing
If you’re considering subleasing, ask your landlord/property manager if you have permission to sublease your unit and check your lease for clauses forbidding it. Subletting without their permission gives them a valid reason to terminate your lease!

Make sure you have an agreement with your “sublessee” in-writing. Include in your agreement a clause that references the rules in the Master Lease.

Make sure you get a security deposit from your sublessee in case any damages are made to your unit.

Inspecting Before You Rent:

Before you decide to rent, carefully inspect the rental unit with the landlord or the landlord’s agent. This will help you to see if the unit is a safe and healthy place for you to live and will give you a chance to request needed repairs before you move in. It will also protect you from being held responsible for conditions that already existed when you moved in.

Below is a simple checklist of things you should look for when inspecting a unit:
  • Structure (Floors, walls, ceilings, foundation)
  • Hot water (>110 degrees F)
  • Insects, vermin, rodents
  • Carbon monoxide detectors
  • Plumbing (Toilets, sinks)
  • Heat
  • Wiring/electricity
  • Trash receptacles (with lids)
  • Bathroom (Working toilet, washbasin, bathtub/shower)
  • Light/ventilation
  • Fire safety (Clear exits (1), Smoke detectors (2), +replacement batteries)
  • Deadbolt locks (4) (main exterior doors, common area doors, gates/windows)

1 Health and Safety Code Section 13220  | 2 Health and Safety Code Section 13113.7 | 3 Health and Safety Code Section 17926 and 17926.1 |  4 Civil Code Section 1941.3

While checking some items on this list may seem obvious, the unhappy truth is that many people do not check a rental unit thoroughly before moving in and have all sorts of trouble getting repairs made later. So please, slow down and look carefully (and then look again) before you sign on the dotted line. Remember: DOCUMENT EVERYTHING, TAKE PHOTOS, GET IT IN WRITING.

A good way to protect yourself is to take an inventory of the condition of the premises when you move in and when you move out. This means no more than making a brief written record of the condition of each room and having it signed by you and your landlord. Not only does the inventory give both of you an accurate record of the condition of the unit, but the act of making it provides a framework for communication and the resolution of potential disputes about security deposits when you move out.

Here are two pre-made Landlord/Tenant Checklists to save you time:

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