How to Evict a Tenant in California

Evicting a tenant under California law is a time-consuming, multi-step process. The only way to legally evict a tenant is by filing a lawsuit. Learn the steps necessary to evict a tenant.

A Guide for Landlords on How to Evict a Tenant in California

Evicting a tenant, or forcing a renter to move out of a dwelling that you own, under California law is a time-consuming, multi-step process. The only way to legally evict a tenant is by filing a lawsuit. As a landlord, you have the right to remove tenants who violate their lease agreements. Landlords often want to complete the eviction process quickly to avoid losing rent money and prevent other tenants from moving out due to dissatisfaction with living conditions.

California calls eviction lawsuits unlawful detainer actions, and you should expect the entire process to take about one month. The landlord is the "plaintiff," and the tenant is the "defendant." The state of California also gives priority to eviction lawsuits over all other legal matters, aside from criminal cases.

This guide will outline all the steps necessary to evict a tenant.

1. Make sure that you have legal grounds to evict the tenant

Before you can proceed with evicting a tenant, you must have a valid reason for doing so. Evictions are warranted when a tenant:

  • Fails to pay rent
  • Damages property and brings down its value
  • Violates the terms of the rental contract and will not fix any problems
  • Stays after the lease is up
  • Uses the property for an unlawful purpose
  • Uses, manufactures, sells, or possesses illegal drugs on the property
  • Causes a significant nuisance to other neighbors and tenants, even after being asked to stop

You can also evict a tenant from a month-to-month tenancy by giving proper notice.

A landlord is not allowed to use self-help measures to evict a tenant: You cannot physically lock out a tenant or cut off utilities. Landlords should never threaten their tenants with unlawful methods to evict or threaten deportation of immigrant tenants. You must go through this unlawful detainer process.

If you do unlawful methods to evict tenants, they can sue you for damages, and you can be penalized up to $2,000 per instance that you used those methods. It is also illegal for you to file an unlawful detainer action in retaliation for the tenant exercising a right or complaining about the conditions to an inspector or agency.

Rent in California is typically due on the first day of every month, even if the first falls on a holiday or weekend. However, if the lease agreement specifies a different date, all legal steps should reflect the due date in the document. If there is no set due date in the agreement, it will default to the first of the month.

2. Serve tenant with an appropriate notice

Prior to serving a tenant with a legal notice, you may want to contact the tenant yourself to try to resolve the situation. Some landlords opt to start the process with a legal mediator for a more peaceful situation. If these methods don't work, you can always go through the legal process.

If you are evicting the tenant because of failure to pay rent, you must serve the tenant with a three-day notice of the rent due. The notice should state that if the tenant fails to pay the rent due within three days of the date of the notice, you will begin taking steps toward eviction. You can ask only for the amount that was actually due, so utilities and penalties must be excluded. The notice must also provide:

  • Name, address, and phone number of the person or financial institution to whom the rent must be paid and include hours and days that the person or financial institution is available to receive the rent
  • Date you served the demand to the tenant
  • Name(s) and address(es) of the tenant(s)
  • Total amount of rent due
  • A certificate of service that specifies how you provided the notice to the tenant
  • The signature of the landlord

Many tenants in eviction cases will claim that the notices weren't served properly, so take great care to handle the process correctly and include all necessary information on the notice. A renter may also use an eviction notice to raise awareness about the landlord's wrongdoing. If a landlord breaks the law, this action could cause the case to swing in favor of the tenant.

"Serving" the tenant means that you must try personally serving the tenant by directly handing the notice to the person or leaving it on the ground near the tenant if the person refuses to take it. If that arrangement isn't possible, then you can engage in "substituted service," allowing you to leave the notice with someone who seems reasonably competent and is 18 years or older at the rental property or tenant's place of work and mailing a copy to the tenant. If that option isn't possible, then you are allowed to "nail and mail" by posting the notice on the tenant's door and mailing a copy to the tenant. Some counties require permission from the court to use the "nail and mail" option for serving the tenant.

The three-day notice is also used when the tenant has violated a rental agreement provision. If the violation is correctable, such as having a pet when no pets are allowed, then you must give the tenant three days to remedy the problem. If the violation is based on illegal activity or other violations that aren't easily remedied, then the notice is an order for the tenant to leave the unit within three days.

If you are evicting a tenant from a month-to-month lease, you will need to give the tenant a 30-day notice to move out. If the tenant has lived in the unit for more than one year, the notice must be extended to 60 days. In government-subsidized housing, the notice must be 90 days.

Landlords do not have to give a 30-day notice if the tenant is creating a legal nuisance by engaging in criminal activity or endangering neighbors. You simply must provide a three-day notice to vacate the premises.

The tenant has three options upon receipt of a three-day notice of the rent due. The tenant may pay the rent within the three-day window. Another option is that the tenant could move out within three days of receiving the three-day rent notice. The third option is not responding to the notice or moving out, which allows the landlord to move forward in the next step of eviction proceedings.

3. Wait for the notice to expire

Depending on the type of notice, you'll have to give the tenant a certain amount of time to remedy the grounds for eviction. A notice based on failure to pay rent requires that the landlord give the tenant three days to correct the problem and pay rent. A 30-day notice on a month-to-month or expired lease requires you to wait 30 days before you proceed with filing a lawsuit.

4. File all legal documents with the court

Three forms are necessary to proceed with an Unlawful Detainer Complaint:

You'll need to submit the Unlawful Detainer Complaint and the Civil Case Cover Sheet to the courthouse in the county where the rental property exists. The forms must be factually accurate, so be meticulous when filling them out. The clerk at the courthouse will give you a summons and a stamped copy of the Unlawful Detainer Complaint.

Be sure to get a copy of the Prejudgment Right of Possession form or print one. This form is used when someone not listed on the rental agreement is living in the unit. You cannot legally evict a person living in a unit who is not named in the complaint, so you'll need to serve those unnamed occupants with a Prejudgment Right of Possession form and a copy of the complaint and summons. This action will automatically make them defendants in the lawsuit.

From the time you file an Unlawful Detainer Complaint form, the process of getting the tenant evicted typically takes about two months, although eviction can take longer.

5. Serve the tenant with the proper legal documents

As before, the complaint and summons must be properly served to the tenant. However, you cannot "nail and mail" a summons. After you serve the summons, file a proof of service with the court. Do not continue to reserve the tenant with notices, as this action will end the original case and open a new one, which will extend the waiting period and prolong the case.

6. Wait for the tenant to respond to the lawsuit

The tenant has five business days to file a "response" to the court to challenge the lawsuit. Responses from a tenant might include a motion to attack the method of service, a motion to answer the complaints received, or a motion to attack the sufficiency of the notice received.

If the tenant fails to respond after five business days, you can ask for a default judgment by filing another form with the court. The clerk of court will set a court date, and you will have to give the judge enough evidence to show that you properly went through the eviction process and the tenant defaulted.

7. Go through the court process

You or the tenant may ask for a trial date, which is usually set within 10 to 20 days after the request. The time frame may vary depending on your area. You cannot collect rent from the tenant while awaiting a trial, but the tenant will be responsible for rent payment.

The tenant may respond to your lawsuit by filing one of many legal objections to the notice, service, or the actual complaint. An objection to the method of service of the notice or complaint is a Motion to Quash Service of Summons, and an objection to the grounds for eviction is a Demurrer.

You will have to respond to these objections in writing. If the court sides with the tenant, you'll be granted "leave to amend," which is a second chance to show that you have a valid case or that you properly gave notice to and served the tenant. At this stage, if you lose a second time, your lawsuit may be dismissed, and you will have to start your lawsuit again. This part is particularly tricky, and you should seek help from an attorney.

If the tenant "answers" the complaint, then a trial date is set. Both sides will be able to present evidence and explain their cases to the judge at trial, so collect as much documentation as possible to show that this eviction is warranted.

Make sure to bring records of violations, notices, and the lease agreement with you to court. Most proceedings for eviction take about one hour. But if the defendant brings significant information, the case could take longer.

If the judge rules in your favor at the trial, the court will issue a Writ of Possession, which gives a sheriff the power to physically lock the tenant out of the rental property if the tenant does not voluntarily vacate within five days. Depending on the circumstances and provisions in the rental agreement, the court may also order the tenant to pay any unpaid rent, attorney's fees, or up to a $600 penalty. A landlord cannot legally try to evict a tenant without the Writ of Possession from the court and without having a sheriff present during the eviction.

The sheriff typically has three to 15 days to post the notice on the dwelling; then, the tenant has five days from the date of the notice posting to vacate the property. If the tenant does not leave, the sheriff will return within six to 15 days to physically remove the tenant from the property.

If the tenant leaves any personal items behind, you will need to research local ordinances in the county or city where the property is located. Some municipalities require the landlord to give notice to the tenant to collect the items, while others allow the landlord to sell or dispose of them.

When a case gets ruled in favor of a landlord, the tenant is found both liable and guilty. The conviction will stay on the tenant's record for up to 10 years and could arise during background checks when applying to rent another residence.

Additional situations can make evicting a tenant more complicated:

  • The tenant works for you while living on the property
  • The tenant lives in a residential hotel
  • The tenant lives in an RV park or mobile home
  • The tenant rents a foreclosed unit

Special protections are in place for tenants of properties under foreclosure under the Protecting Tenants at Foreclosure Act (PTFA). If the tenant is bona fide, which means the individual is the original tenant on the lease agreement, these protections restrict a new owner or financial institution from evicting that tenant. Bona fide tenants do not include spouses, children, or parents of a former owner.

If a bank takes ownership of a property, it must give a month-to-month tenant at least a 90-day notice to move out. But if the tenant has a current lease, a bank cannot issue the 90-day notice until a buyer is ready to move into the property as the person's primary residence. If the property gets sold to an investor or someone who plans to use the property as a vacation or second home, neither the new owner nor the bank can evict a tenant maintaining a current lease agreement.

If you're in any of these complex situations, you should hire an attorney to help make sure that you're not violating any laws. By following the process, you can avoid losing rental income and prevent getting involved in a lengthy legal matter, which could take months to resolve.

Evicting a tenant under California laws is a complicated process. UpCounsel has many experienced landlord-tenant attorneys who are willing to help you through these steps. You can find more information about the eviction process on the California Department of Consumer Affairs website.

Related real estate legal documents:

Three-day Notice to Pay Rent

30-day Notice

Unlawful Detainer Complaint

Civil Case Cover Sheet

Prejudgment Right of Possession Form

Need Help Evicting a Tenant?

Post a job on UpCounsel, get free proposals, and connect with quality real estate attorneys in California today who can help you with evicting a tenant.