When a tenant fails to pay rent in California, the landlord can choose to terminate the tenancy and evict the tenant if necessary—as long as the landlord follows the correct procedures.
Most leases and rental agreements require tenants to pay rent on the first day of every month, even if the first of the month is a weekend or holiday. Under California law, landlords aren't required to give tenants a grace period before charging a late fee or taking steps to terminate the tenancy.
However, there's no law preventing landlords from having rent due on another day of the month or giving tenants a grace period for paying rent. For example, a lease or rental agreement could state that if the first of the month is a holiday, rent will be due the next business day. Or a lease or rental agreement could require the landlord to wait three days after the rent due date before assessing a late fee. All arrangements between landlords and tenants should be written into a lease or rental agreement signed by both parties.
As soon as the rent is late (and the grace period, if any, has passed), the landlord can give the tenant a three-day notice to pay rent or quit. The notice must inform the tenant that if the tenant does not pay rent or move out within three days of receiving the notice, then the landlord will begin eviction proceedings against the tenant. (Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 1161(2) (2022).)
The three-day notice to pay rent or quit must be written and include the following information:
(Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 1161(2) (2022).)
A landlord can deliver a three-day notice to pay rent or quit through:
(Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 1162(a) (2022).)
A tenant could respond to the three-day notice in a variety of different ways.
California landlords can't take self-help measures—such as changing locks or turning off electricity—to get tenants to move out. Rather, after giving the proper notice to terminate the tenancy, the landlord must file an "unlawful detainer" (eviction) lawsuit. To start the unlawful detainer suit, the landlord must file a summons and complaint with the superior court of the county or district in which the rental unit is located. The court will set a date for a hearing before a judge, and the landlord must serve the tenant with the court paperwork (a summons and a complaint).
To serve the tenant, the landlord can:
The tenant has five days (or 15, if they aren't served in person) to respond to the summons and complaint. If the tenant responds, a judge will hear both sides of the story at the hearing. If the tenant doesn't respond, the landlord can ask the judge for a "default judgment," in which the court will issue an order—called a writ of possession—giving the landlord the right to reenter the rental.
When both the tenant and landlord show up for a hearing, most courts will require the parties to mediate the dispute to try to reach a settlement. If that's unsuccessful, the judge will decide whether the tenant gets to stay in the rental or the landlord is entitled to a writ of possession.
The only legal way to evict a tenant is for a landlord to use a writ of possession to hire the sheriff or another law enforcement officer to physically remove the tenant and the tenant's belongings. If a landlord attempts to illegally evict a tenant, the tenant can sue the landlord for damages.
The California court system has detailed information about evictions online. Nolo also offers a book on California tenant rights, an eviction guide book for California landlords, and a book on California landlords' rights and responsibilities.
Low-income individuals might qualify for reduced-cost or free legal assistance.