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How to Evict a Residential Tenant in California

Whether you’re dealing with non-payment of rent or breach of lease terms, it’s essential to approach evictions methodically to ensure compliance with state laws.

In this article, we’ll guide you through the essential steps to evict a residential tenant in California legally. Consider consulting with a real estate attorney to protect your property interests if you need personalized guidance.

What Are the Grounds for Evicting a Tenant in California?

In California, the grounds for evicting a tenant include non-payment of rent, violation of lease terms, causing significant damage to the property, engaging in illegal activities on the premises, and the landlord’s decision to either move into the property, substantially remodel it, or remove it from the rental market. If the lease has expired and the tenant refuses to leave, this also constitutes grounds for eviction.

  1. Non-payment of rent. This is the most straightforward reason. If a tenant fails to pay rent, landlords can issue a pay-or-quit notice, typically allowing the tenant three days to pay before further action is taken.
  2. Violation of lease terms. If a tenant breaks any terms specified in the lease agreement—such as keeping unauthorized pets, causing disturbances, or subletting without permission—the landlord can issue a cure-or-quit notice.
  3. Damage to property. Tenants causing substantial damage to the property that decreases its value or usability can be grounds for eviction.
  4. Illegal activity. Engaging in illegal activities on the property, such as drug manufacturing or distribution, provides grounds for immediate eviction.
  5. Owner move-in. Landlords may evict tenants if they or their close relatives plan to move into the unit. This ground often requires a certain notice period and is sometimes subject to specific local regulations.
  6. Withdrawal from rental market. Under the Ellis Act, landlords can evict tenants if they intend to remove the property from the rental market permanently. The landlord must generally give tenants 120 days notice but may be required to provide more notice for elderly or disabled tenants.
  7. Lease expiration. If a tenant remains on the property after their lease has expired and does not leave voluntarily, the landlord may begin eviction proceedings.

Understanding and adhering to the specific procedures and notices required for each type of eviction is crucial to ensure legality and fairness in the process.

What Are Some Invalid Reasons to Evict a Tenant in California?

In California, landlords cannot evict tenants for retaliatory or discriminatory reasons. Examples of invalid grounds for eviction include:

  1. Retaliation. You cannot evict a tenant for exercising a legal right, such as complaining about unsafe living conditions or organizing a tenants’ union.
  2. Discrimination. You cannot evict or treat tenants differently based on race, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, national origin, or other protected characteristics.
  3. Personal dislike or disagreements. Disliking a tenant’s personality or having minor disputes that don’t violate lease terms is not a valid reason for eviction.

Evictions based on these grounds are considered unlawful and can result in legal penalties for landlords.

What About “Protected” Tenants?

Protected tenants include those covered under specific laws, such as the elderly, the disabled, and those with children, especially in rent-controlled areas. These groups may have additional safeguards against eviction to ensure stability and prevent undue hardship. In many cases, the laws require landlords to provide greater justification and follow stricter procedures when attempting to evict these individuals.

What Does the Three-Day Notice to Pay or Quit Period Mean for Landlords in California?

In California, the three-day notice period is crucial for landlords intending to evict a tenant due to non-payment of rent or violation of lease terms. This notice must clearly specify the breach (such as the exact amount of unpaid rent) and inform the tenant that they have three days to remedy the situation or face eviction proceedings.

If the tenant fails to comply within this timeframe, the landlord can legally proceed with filing an unlawful detainer lawsuit in court. It’s essential for landlords to ensure that they properly draft and serve the notice to avoid legal complications and delays in the eviction process. This requirement enforces a fair opportunity for tenants to address issues while protecting the landlord’s property interests.

The California Eviction Process

Step 1: Serving the Tenant with Proper Notice

The first step in the eviction process in California for a landlord is to serve the tenant with a proper notice. This notice depends on the reason for eviction. A three-day notice to pay rent or quit is required for non-payment of rent. If the issue involves violating lease terms, a three-day notice to cure the violation or quit is used. This notice must clearly outline the reasons for the eviction and allow the tenant to rectify the issue within the specified timeframe.

If the landlord is terminating the lease for a permitted reason, such as an owner move-in, a longer notice may be required. For example, if the landlord intends to terminate a month-to-month lease for a tenant who has been renting less than a year, they must typically provide 30 days notice.

Step 2: Filing an Eviction Lawsuit

After the notice period expires and if the tenant has not resolved the issue (e.g., unpaid rent or lease violation), the landlord’s next step is to file an unlawful detainer lawsuit in the appropriate court. This legal filing formally starts the court process for eviction, requiring the tenant to respond to the complaint. If the tenant contests the eviction, a court hearing will be scheduled, where both parties can present their case.

Step 3: Time to Respond

Once the unlawful detainer lawsuit is filed and the tenant is served with the court documents, the tenant has five days to respond.

Step 4: Going to Trial

If the tenant responds to the unlawful detainer by contesting the case, the court schedules a trial, usually within 20 days. At the trial, both parties can present their evidence and arguments.

If the tenant does not respond, the landlord can request a default judgment from the court, which typically grants the right to reclaim the property without a trial. If a judgment favors the landlord, the next step is to obtain a writ of possession to enforce the eviction.

Step 5: Removing the Tenant

Once a writ of possession is issued in favor of the landlord, the next step is for the landlord to give the writ to the local sheriff’s department. The sheriff will then post a notice at the property informing the tenant that they will be forcibly removed within a few days, typically five days. This notice period gives the tenant a final chance to vacate the property voluntarily before the sheriff returns to physically remove the tenant and restore possession of the property to the landlord.

Are Landlords Better Off Handling the Eviction Process Themselves or Hiring a Lawyer?

Landlords might consider handling the eviction process themselves for straightforward cases like undisputed non-payment of rent. However, hiring a lawyer is advisable for most situations, particularly those involving contested evictions, complex legal issues, or significant tenant defenses. A lawyer can ensure that all legal procedures are correctly followed, help avoid costly mistakes, and represent the landlord in court if needed. Legal representation is especially crucial in jurisdictions with stringent tenant protections.

Top 5 Things Landlords Should Know Before Evicting a Tenant in California:

  1. Legal grounds. Understand specific legal reasons permissible for eviction, such as non-payment of rent, violation of lease terms, or illegal activities.
  2. Proper notice. Be sure to serve the correct type of eviction notice, such as a 3-day or 30-day notice, depending on the reason for eviction.
  3. Documentation. Keep detailed records of all communications and issues with the tenant, as this documentation can be crucial in court.
  4. Tenant rights. Be aware of tenant protections under local and state laws, especially in rent-controlled areas where eviction rules can be more stringent.
  5. Legal assistance. Consider hiring an attorney, particularly for complex cases, to navigate the legal system effectively and ensure compliance with all regulations.

Understanding these aspects can help streamline the eviction process and reduce potential legal challenges.

Wrapping It Up

Evicting a tenant in California involves several critical steps, from serving the proper notices to possibly engaging in court proceedings. By following the legal framework outlined in this guide, landlords can navigate the eviction process more smoothly and effectively. 

Remember, every situation is unique, so reaching out to a professional for legal advice is highly recommended for specific issues or complex cases. Protect your investment and ensure your actions are legally sound by consulting with an attorney experienced in California tenant law.

Avi Sinai Avi Sinai started to practice law in 2011, focusing on business and real estate transactions. The driving force behind the firm’s success is a relentless pursuit creating value for our clients. Our core belief is that clients deserve a positive return on their legal fees. Avi successfully represented clients in litigation, multiple trials, countless mediations, and administrative hearings.