To put it plainly: If you move into a rental with an operable AC system, California law says that the landlord is responsible for fixing it. However, if the tenant is at fault for breaking the AC, it’s up to the tenant to pay to fix it.
Factors that determine liability include:
Why the AC needs repair
Whether it’s an “optional cooling unit”
If the rental has proper ventilation
Payment options like “Repair & Deduct”
There’s some gray area when it comes to California tenant rights — especially around AC systems. To clear up any confusion, we’ll explain each factor in further detail below.
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Factor #1: Why does your AC need repair?
Why your AC needs to be repaired can determine who is liable for the cost.
In California, there are 3 main scenarios that determine liability:
1. The AC was well maintained by the landlord but still broke
If the landlord provided an operable air conditioning system upon move-in, they arelegally required to maintain it and keep it in“good working order.” If the AC system breaks, the landlord has to fix it — even if it was brand new or exceptionally well maintained.
2. The AC broke because the landlord was negligent
If the AC needs repair because it hasn’t been properly maintained by the landlord, the landlord is responsible for fixing it. In California, landlords have 30 days to restore the AC back to operational condition.
However, that 30-day timeline only begins from the date that the tenant notifies them of the problem. It’s the tenant’s responsibility to inform the landlord of any problems.
3. The tenant (or tenant’s guest) broke the AC
If the tenant causes the AC system to fail, they are responsible for paying the cost of the repair — even if it’s an accident. California state housing law requires that tenants:
“Not willfully or wantonly destroy, deface, damage, impair or remove any part of the structure or dwelling unit or the facilities or equipment.”
This includes the AC unit. So, if you or anyone you invite over to your rental damages the AC, you will be held responsible.
Factor #2: Is your AC considered an “optional cooling unit?”
California doesn’t legally require landlords to offer air conditioning. However, some landlords offer an “optional cooling unit,” such as a portable AC unit. This is considered an amenity, which means that the landlord is only responsible for fixing it if it’s written into the lease.
If you’re using an optional cooling unit and it breaks down, check your lease to see if repairs are included in your rent. If it wasn’t, you may be out of luck.
Granted, some landlords are more generous than others and want to keep their tenants happy. But by law, they’re only on the hook for fixing AC units that are part of a signed lease agreement.
Factor #3: Does your rental have proper ventilation?
While air conditioning isn’t required by law, California rental houses and apartments must have adequate ventilation, on top of standard weather protections. This means no broken windows or doors, and sufficient waterproofing of the roof and exterior walls.
Unless there’s a fan or other type of ventilation system installed, most rooms require a window that is at least 20 x 24 inches and can open halfway.
If something breaks and you no longer have proper ventilation in your rental, your landlord must repair it immediately. Because this is considered an imminent health threat, the 30-day rule does not apply.
Factor #4: “Repair & Deduct” method
If your landlord refuses to fix your AC, you can pay for repairs out of pocket and then deduct the cost from your monthly rent.
This is called the “Repair and Deduct” method, and should only be used once you’ve provided your landlord with a written statement of your repair request. They then have 30 days to make repairs, so clear communication (and some patience) on your part is required.
Keep in mind that the cost cannot exceed one month’s rent, and you can only use this method twice a year. Also, double check that your lease agreement clearly outlines that AC is part of your monthly rent.
Again, if your landlord is motivated to keep a long-term tenant in place, they should hopefully be responsive to repairs, and you won’t have to resort to alternatives.