Landlords in California must follow very specific rules and procedures (set forth by California landlord-tenant law) when evicting a tenant. This article explains the California eviction process, covering everything from the reasons why landlords can evict tenants, to the methods for serving an eviction notice in California, to the eviction itself.
The first step—and one that must be done before the landlord can file an eviction ("unlawful detainer") lawsuit—is for the landlord to let the tenant know that they are ending the tenancy. This is called "terminating" the tenancy.
To add to the complexity of the eviction process, California's Tenant Protection Act of 2019 gives tenants who have lived in a rental for at least 12 months additional protections.
The California Tenant Protection Act of 2019 (the "Act") is a statewide rent control and tenant protection law that affects most tenancies in California. The Act is complex, but, generally speaking, it requires landlords to have "just cause"—a reason recognized by the Act—to evict a tenant who has lived in a rental for 12 months or longer. The reason can be because the tenant is "at-fault," meaning the landlord is ending the tenancy because of the tenant's actions (or inaction), or it can be "no-fault," meaning the landlord has a reason independent of the tenant's behavior (such as wanting to personally move into the rental) for ending the tenancy.
The Act applies to tenants who have month-to-month rental agreements as well as those with longer-term leases. However, some types of tenancies are exempt from the Act. For example, a unit that is "separately alienable from title" (meaning a standalone property that can be sold on its own, such as a single-family home) that's owned by an individual is exempt.
Going into the Act in detail is beyond the scope of this article, but Nolo's article Statewide Rent Control: California's Tenant Protection Act of 2019 provides a thorough overview of what both tenants and landlords should know about the Act.
A landlord can terminate a tenancy early and evict the tenant for a variety of reasons, including failure to pay rent, violating the lease or rental agreement, or committing an illegal act. The landlord must terminate the tenancy by giving the tenant a written notice (called a "Notice to Quit" in California). The reason for the termination will determine the type of notice needed.
(Cal. Civ. Proc. Code § 1161(4) (2023).) (Landlords can also use a three-day unconditional notice to quit when a tenant subject to the Act ignores a three-day notice to quit or cure a lease violation that can be corrected. More on that below.)
The rules for terminating a lease without cause vary depending on whether the tenancy is month-to-month or a fixed term.
If a tenant has a month-to-month rental agreement and has lived in the rental unit for less than one year, then a landlord must give the tenant a written 30-day notice to end the tenancy. (Cal. Civ. Code § 1946.1 (2023).) The landlord doesn't have to give a reason for the termination, but must not be ending the tenancy for a discriminatory reason.
If the tenant has lived in the rental unit for over one year and is month-to-month, then the landlord must give the tenant a written 60-day notice to end the tenancy. (Cal. Civ. Code § 1946.1 (2023).)
Both notices must inform the tenant that the tenancy will expire at the end of the notice period and the tenant must move out of the rental unit by that time.
For tenancies that are longer than month-to-month, the landlord can't end the tenancy without cause until the end of the term. The landlord doesn't need to give the tenant notice to move out at the end of the term unless the lease specifically requires it. For example, this means that if the tenant has a year-long tenancy that expires at the end of December and the tenant hasn't requested a lease renewal, the landlord will not need to give the tenant notice to move out by the end of December, unless the terms of the lease specifically require notice.
Ending a Fixed-Term Tenancy When the Tenant Has Lived in the Rental for 12 Months
The exception to the rule that a landlord doesn't have to give a tenant notice when a fixed-term lease is ending is if the tenant has lived in the property for 12 months. In this situation, the landlord can't refuse to renew the lease without just cause.
If the landlord's reason for not renewing the lease is an "at-fault" reason, the landlord must give a:
(Cal. Civ. Pro. Code § 1161; Cal. Civ. Code § 1946.2 (2023).)
When the at-fault reason is a curable breach, if the tenant doesn't cure the violation or move out after receiving the three-day notice to cure or quit, the landlord must provide a three-day unconditional notice to quit before the landlord can file an eviction lawsuit. (Cal. Civ. Code § 1946.2(c) (2023).)
If the landlord's reason for not renewing the lease is a "no-fault" reason, the landlord must compensate the tenant pursuant to the Act. (Cal. Civ. Code § 1946.2 (2023).)
When a landlord has cause to end a tenancy early (as discussed above), the eviction process can proceed as follows:
The landlord must deliver the proper notice to terminate (see above) on the tenant. The notice can be:
The landlord or another person over the age of 18 can deliver the notice to terminate to the tenant.
If the termination notice gave the tenant the opportunity to pay rent or fix a problem, and the tenant does so, the landlord can't file an unlawful detainer suit. Alternatively, if the tenant moves out by the deadline given in the notice to terminate, the tenancy is over, and the landlord has no need to file an eviction lawsuit.
If the tenant fails to move out or cure the problem described in the notice, the landlord can file an unlawful detainer lawsuit. The case must be filed in the superior court in the county where the rental is located. The landlord will file the following forms:
Landlords should also check with the court clerk to find out if there are additional required local forms.
The filing fee for an unlawful detainer suit is $240-$450, depending on the court. Landlords can file for a fee waiver if they can't afford the filing fee.
After filing the forms, the landlord must have the eviction paperwork served on the tenant. These documents can't be served by the landlord—another person over the age of 18 and not related to the case must serve them.
Once the paperwork has been served, an original and copy of a signed Proof of Service form must be filed with the court.
The tenant has either 5 or 15 days to respond, depending on how the landlord served the paperwork. When the server hands the documents personally to the tenant, the tenant has five days (excluding weekends and holidays) to respond. The tenant gets 15 days (including weekends and holidays) to respond when the server:
If the tenant responds to (answers) the landlord's complaint, the landlord can then ask the court to set a trial date. At the trial, both the landlord and the tenant will have the opportunity to explain their position on the eviction.
If the tenant doesn't file an answer, the landlord can ask the court for a default judgment (meaning the court will grant the landlord's request to evict the tenant without any input or defense from the tenant). A landlord who is granted a default judgment must serve the tenant with a copy of the judgment.
The judge will sign a Judgment of Possession if the judge believes that the landlord has good reason to evict the tenant. The judge might also order the tenant to pay rent owed, other costs the landlord incurred when filing the lawsuit, and (if allowed under the lease) attorneys' fees.
Once the court signs a Judgment of Possession, the landlord will have the clerk of the court stamp a Writ of Execution. A Writ of Execution gives the landlord the power to direct the sheriff's office to proceed with the eviction.
After the landlord reserves the sheriff's services, the sheriff will serve the tenant with a Notice to Vacate. The Notice to Vacate orders the tenant to move out within five days. If the tenant doesn't move out, the sheriff can physically remove the tenant and the tenant's belongings from the rental.
Landlords must carefully follow all the rules and procedures required by California law when evicting a tenant. If there is a procedural error, such as not giving the tenant enough notice of the termination, the court will dismiss the unlawful detainer lawsuit, the tenant can remain in the rental (for the time being), and the landlord will have to restart the termination and eviction process.
Landlords must never resort to self-help procedures such as locking out the tenant or physically removing the tenant or the tenant's belongings from the rental. The only legal way to remove the tenant is for the landlord to win an unlawful detainer lawsuit. Even after the landlord wins, the only person authorized to remove the tenant is a law enforcement officer—usually a sheriff. The consequences of illegal evictions are serious: Landlords who illegally evict tenants may be subject to lawsuits by the tenant, and possibly even criminal charges.
Although these rules and procedures can seem burdensome to the landlord, they serve an important purpose. Evictions often occur very quickly, and the end result is serious: the tenant has lost a place to live. The rules help ensure that the eviction is justified and that the tenant has enough time to find a new home.
After the tenant has been evicted, the landlord might find that the tenant has left personal property behind in the rental unit. The landlord must try to notify the tenant of the abandoned property and give the tenant at least 15 days to reclaim it (18 days if the notice was mailed to the tenant). The landlord can charge the tenant for the cost of storing the property. If the tenant doesn't claim the property, the landlord can dispose of it at the end of the notice period. (Cal. Civ. Code §§ 1980–1991 (2023).)
For anyone who wants to represent themselves in an eviction suit, the California Courts Self-Help Guide is an excellent source of information about eviction laws and procedures. Low-income individuals might be able to get reduced-fee or free legal assistance.
The California Landlord's Law Book: Evictions provides step-by-step advice on and the necessary forms for evicting a tenant in California. The California Landlord's Law Book: Rights and Responsibilities is another resource for landlords to tap into—it covers a broad range of issues that will help landlords find good tenants and (hopefully) having to end up in a situation where they have to evict a tenant.
California Tenants' Rights is a book designed to help tenants deal with difficult landlords, understand their rights and responsibilities, and fight an eviction if necessary.