Month-to-Month Rental Agreements & Evictions in California

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Tenancies usually begin happily, but not all of them end that way. An eviction is an involuntary termination of a tenancy by a landlord. The rules and procedures that apply to evictions in California can seem complicated, and the state's landlord-tenant laws are supplemented by county and municipal laws, including, in some jurisdictions, rent control laws. In all cases, eviction looks different depending on whether the tenancy is under a lease or a month-to-month rental agreement.

Every landlord and tenant in California needs to understand the laws that govern evictions in their jurisdiction as well as the required procedures. A landlord's attempt to evict a tenant without following applicable laws can lead to fines and even criminal charges.

Month-to-Month or Lease Tenancy

Most tenancies in California are periodic tenancies, more commonly called month-to-month tenancies. Under a month-to-month tenancy, a tenant prepays rent for the month in order to have the right to live in the rental unit for that month. For example, a tenant might pay their monthly rent on January 1 for the right to occupy the premises for the month of January.

Month-to-month tenancies can, and usually are, created by a written agreement. The length of the tenancy is indefinite and it continues as long as neither the landlord nor the tenant terminate it.

A lease is a rental agreement for a set period of time, typically a year or two years. Leases for a year or more must be in writing. During the lease period, neither the landlord nor the tenant can simply terminate the tenancy without good cause. If the tenant moves out before the rental period expires, they may continue to owe rent for the period of the lease.

Terminating a Month-to-Month Tenancy

Think of a month-to-month tenancy as a rental agreement for one month that can be renewed for another month by a timely rental payment. In general, the tenant can stay in the unit as long as they like if they continue to pay rent. When the tenant decides to leave, they provide the landlord with notice that they are terminating the tenancy and the date they intend to leave. They need not provide a reason for terminating the tenancy.

Similarly, under state laws, a landlord can terminate a month-to-month tenancy at any time and for any reason with proper notice. Of course, there are constitutional limitations on the reasons for terminating a tenancy; for example, terminating a tenancy because the tenant marries someone of a different race would be a violation of the Equal Protection Clause. But most month-to-month tenancies are terminated for personal reasons such as the tenant is moving to another state or legal reasons like the failure to pay rent or violation of other lease agreement provisions.

Notice Requirements to Terminate a Tenancy

In general, a California landlord can terminate a month-to-month tenancy by giving the tenant 30 days' written notice. A tenant that terminates the tenancy must give the landlord 30 days' written notice. For example, if the landlord wants the tenant to vacate the premises on July 31, written notice on June 30 is sufficient. Under California law, however, if the tenant has lived in the unit for over a year, the requisite notice is 60 days.

Municipal laws, including rent control laws, impact termination of a tenancy. Each city's laws are different but, under most rent control laws, good cause is required to terminate a month-to-month tenancy. Under both state landlord-tenant laws and municipal rent control laws, the landlord can terminate a tenancy with much less notice if the tenant doesn't pay rent their rent or violates the rental contract. The landlord must provide the tenant with notice of the breach and give them a short period of time to cure it.

For example, the state requires that landlords prepare and serve their tenant with a written Three-Day Notice to Pay Rent or Quit if they haven't paid rent when due. That means that the tenant can choose to pay the amount owed within three days and continue on as a tenant or pack up and leave the premises within three days. The same principle applies to rental agreement violations: the tenant is served with a three-day notice to comply with the agreement terms or quit the premises.

Moving Toward Eviction Proceedings

Of course, the tenant has another option: stay in the premises and contest an eviction. If the tenant does not pay rent or move out within the time given in the eviction notice, the landlord files an unlawful detainer action in municipal court. This is essentially the landlord seeking a court order allowing them to evict the tenant.

Is the tenant turned out immediately? Not at all, and, especially in rent control jurisdictions, an unlawful detainer action can pend for weeks or even months. The eviction case is essentially a trial. The tenant disputes the eviction action by presenting any defenses to the eviction including claims that they are being evicted for demanding repairs to the unit. Both sides have the right to seek evidence from the other in discovery proceedings that can themselves become contested matters in terms of scope and relevance. Each will require a court hearing and a decision by a judge.

Often these trials terminate in settlement agreements that give the tenant additional time to move out or forgive back rent. Sometimes the tenant just doesn't show up, and the court decides in favor of the landlord. The landlord has the right to have the sheriff evict the tenants and have the locks changed.

COVID-19 Eviction Ban

As the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic caused employers to close their doors and employees to go without pay, many renters found themselves unable to pay their rent. Federal, state and local governments jumped into the act to try to protect impacted tenants from evictions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) ordered a nationwide halt on evictions of residential tenants unable to pay rent due to COVID-19-related financial problems. This expires on July 31, 2021.

In September, 2020, California also enacted statewide eviction bans that prohibited landlords from evicting qualified residential tenants through January 2021. This was extended in January, 2021, through June 30, 2021. It also added federal stimulus money for housing assistance. The protections were extended a third time through September 30, 2021, and landlords are to be reimbursed 100 percent of unpaid rent incurred from April 2021 through that date by qualifying tenants.

Qualifying for COVID-19-Related Protection

How to qualify? Tenants that are behind in their rent payments from March 1, 2020 to September 30, 2021 because of COVID-19 issues must, within a 15-day notice period, and thereafter monthly, provide their landlords with declarations of COVID-19-related financial distress. They also have to pay at least 25 percent of the total rent due going forward. Tenants who fail to pay that amount can be evicted starting October 1, 2021. Any remaining unpaid rent converts to consumer debt collectible in small claims court starting November 1, 2021.

Note that only tenants who can't pay their rent because of COVID-19 impacts are protected. California landlords can still evict tenants who violate other terms of the lease or for past-due rent incurred before the pandemic.