California Habitability Lawsuit Defense Comes Down to a Good Offense
Updated: Jan 5
In the words of Jack Dempsey "the best defense is a good offense." In the world of property management, this means your best defense in a habitability lawsuit is treating each tenant repair request as if the tenant is going to sue you.
Habitability lawsuits are here to stay. They are often nuisance cases that get costly because landlords don't have great written records of repairs. This is often asking a lot of anyone to do, but it is necessary if you to be able to fight back against this kind of lawsuit.
These lawsuits have recently grown in popularity given the shear volume of tenants that exist in the state. With more cities adopting rent control, some of those cities have their own inspection departments, paid for by landlords and tenants through surcharges and fees. These inspection departments do inspections (usually every 2 years) and create inspection reports itemizing needed repairs. These reports are often the fuel of tenant habitability claims for a few reasons:
These reports are usually public record and easy to obtain.
The reports show violations exist, giving a presumption the landlord is not compliant with habitability laws.
Landlords often don't complete all the repair work in the inspection report before the next inspection.
In California, the landlord must be given reasonable time by a tenant to complete repairs, that don't appear obvious to fix immediately. The rule of thumb is 30 days, but there is no definitive timeline. Whatever the task is use common sense and address it within a reasonable time. When possible, let the tenant know when you will be entering the unit to address their work order. This is useful when you later need to prove when the maintenance request came in and how soon it was acted on. Which leads to the next point.
Create a feasible system for maintenance requests. Whether you have one rental or one thousand, a system to intake, delegate, track and close is vital. Often times, the maintenance request cannot be completed by the landlord or handyman and it must be sent out to a vendor. Your system should account for this as vendors are often less available and need to be scheduled in advance. A sample system would look like:
Tenant calls in and states XYZ does not work.
Landlord creates a work order detailing, the date the request was made, by who, which rental unit it applies to and the nature of the repair.
Landlord then contacts applicable vendor with work order. NOTE: Give the vendor a deadline to do the work, if they can't do it by then move on and ask someone else.
Have vendor take before and after photos/ videos. These should be included with their correspondence about the status of the work order.
Landlord takes work order and photos/ videos and files them away (either by building or by tenant, which ever works for the landlord).
Landlord follows up with tenant to confirm work order is in fact complete. If the tenant does not email, make written notes of any phone call conversations (dates, times, persons spoken to, what was agreed, ie. yes the work order is complete).
A system that keeps the tenant informed at the end is unlikely going to result in the tenant later suing when they know you have records on your end of the work you had done per the tenant's request. A proactive landlord in many ways is intimidating, which is good. Being feared is much better than coming across as careless when it comes to maintenance.
Garnering the help of technology, like property management software, can substantially streamline this process. Whatever system you create and implement use it and don't be afraid to modify if there is a less burdensome means to get the work order tracked.
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The information in this post is for general information purposes only. Nothing on this post should be taken as legal advice for any individual case or situation. This information is not intended to create, and receipt or viewing does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship.