Question: When I moved into my apartment, I knew the refrigerator was old. One weekend I filled it with food for a family barbecue and it broke down. I was at work all day and didn't realize this until a number of hours later. I called my property manager but it was the weekend and a new unit wasn't installed for two more days. By then, the food was ruined. I have asked the manager to pay the cost of the lost food, but she has refused. I was thinking about deducting the cost from next month's rent, but I don't want to get into trouble. Can I deduct my losses?
Answer: It may not make sense, but providing a tenant with a working refrigerator is not required by the California laws on habitability. Unlike basic plumbing, heating, electricity and other required conditions, appliances such as a refrigerator are considered amenities.
But if your rental agreement lists the appliances in the apartment, including the refrigerator, we believe the list creates a contract with the landlord to supply these appliances, with the accompanying duty to supply working units.
The only exception would be if the rental agreement specifically makes the tenant responsible for appliance repair. California law does not allow a landlord to shift the duty to repair items of habitability to a tenant, but does allow the responsibility for amenities to be shifted.
In your case, the refrigerator has already been replaced so these differences are less important to you, but they also affect the responsibility for your ruined food. If there was a contractual commitment to supply a refrigerator and the repair responsibility was not shifted to you, then you would have a strong argument that the consequences of failing to maintain a working unit, meaning the loss of your food, are the landlord's responsibility.
Even if the landlord is responsible, California law never allows a tenant to unilaterally deduct amenity repair costs from the rent. You would risk receiving a three-day notice to pay rent or quit, with a resulting unlawful detainer-eviction case if you fail to pay the deducted amount of rent within those three days.
Assuming the breakdown of the refrigerator was not the result of some negligence on your part such as overloading a circuit, your safer alternative would be to present this claim in Small Claims Court. Hopefully, you have receipts or other documentation to show your loss to the judge. As an alternative, you could contact your local mediation program to help you negotiate a settlement.
Eichner is director of Housing Counseling Programs for Project Sentinel, a mediation service based in Sunnyvale, Calif. To submit a question, go to http://www.housing.org.