True story: A student returns from Winter Break to the sight and stench of sewage in his kitchen sink and bathroom. He reports it to BDC Management. He tries to clean it up, though there is no drainage. In the midst of the mess, he finds pearls of unknown origin. Later, the plumber comes and fixes the blockage. Almost three months later, BDC sends the student a bill for the plumber. The student calls BDC about the bill and is told to put his complaint in writing. He hand-delivers his letter. When we call BDC two days later; nobody there has read his letter. At the end of 45 minutes on the phone with two staff members and the manager telling me they have to “research the matter,” we are finally told that it sounds like it may be a main line obstruction that the landlord will take care of, and they will get back to us.

Beware if your lease has a clause like this one, quoted from the BDC lease:

LESSEE’S OBLIGATION OF MAINTENANCE OF THE PREMISES: … Lessee shall be responsible for any damages to leased premises during the term of the lease and for actual costs of all drain, toilet and disposal obstructions except main line and root clogs. (Emphasis added.)

A similar clause foists financial responsibility on tenants for “misuse” of the plumbing.

Increasingly, landlords with such clauses bill our students for expensive plumbing repairs that are normally the landlord’s responsibility under California law. Too often, these landlords assume that the cause was not a main line or root clog, and not old pipes, but rather the tenant’s “misuse” of the plumbing, e.g. beer bottles or tampons (or even “too much toilet paper”) flushed down the toilet. They bill the tenant first without asking questions. If tenants do not pay the bill, they often get a 3-day pay-or-quit eviction notice.

Under the Civil Code, agreements that the tenant will be responsible for improvements, repairs or maintenance of the rented premises as part of the consideration for the rental are lawful. Nevertheless, California Landlord-Tenant Practice states that “given the unequal bargaining power between the residential landlord and tenant, however, it is unlikely that a court would uphold such a lease provision, particularly if it appeared as a ‘standard’ clause in all leases offered by the landlord.”

The clauses I have seen in UCSB students’ leases are standard, not individually negotiated. Student tenants in Santa Barbara, Goleta, and I.V. have no bargaining power with landlords, much less equal or “arm’s length” bargaining power.

If your lease sticks you with the cost of plumbing repairs other than when you damage the fixtures, think defensively.

A few things you can do:

1. Use a good plunger every time the toilet drains slowly, and let the landlord know in writing that there is a slow drain.

2. Do not flush anything other than bodily waste and toilet paper down the toilet.

3. Use a hair catcher in the shower, and clean it out after every shower.

4. Pour grease from pots and pans into a container to go out to the trash rather than washing it down the sink.

5. Use a food catcher in the kitchen sink, and clean it out daily.

Call and write to the landlord each time you need a repair. Make dated notes detailing each phone call and interaction with property management staff and plumbers – whom you spoke with, what was said, what you saw. Follow up with dated, signed letters repeating the conversations; keep signed copies.

Expect the landlord to bill you first for most plumbing bills under such clauses, and to ask questions only if you raise a stink, in writing, about the bill. State all facts (and your good practices #1-5 above, as applicable) that indicate that you did not misuse the plumbing. State that this plumbing problem was ordinary wear and tear, not damages, that you had no bargaining power in the lease because of the shortage of rentals, and that the landlord would not have accepted you as a tenant if you had scratched out this clause. Speak up for yourself.

Dallas Atkins is the Directing Attorney at Associated Students Legal Resource Center.