The landlord's right of entry and California tenant privacy rights go hand in hand. The state's Civil Code guarantees tenants the right to "quiet enjoyment" of their rental property. The law entitles renters to privacy that not even the property owner can breach without proper notice. Notice is the keyword here. While landlords and property management companies do have the right to enter the spaces they own, that entry typically must follow a reasonable amount of notice and is subject to a few other restrictions.
Providing Notice to Enter
California Civil Code Section 1954 contains the bulk of the state's legislation regarding the landlord's right of entry and California tenant privacy rights. Right at the top, it grants landlords the right to enter rental units for the purpose of making repairs, alterations and improvements; providing necessary or agreed-upon services; or exhibiting the property to purchasers, mortgagees, relevant workers, contractors, prospective tenants or inspectors.
However, the landlord, property owner or property management company can't spring this entry on a tenant with no heads-up. Per the tenant's rights under California law, the landlord must provide reasonable notice to the tenant before entering the rental unit. That notice can occur in a variety of forms, depending on the circumstances.
Landlord's Notice of Entry
In most cases, the landlord must give the tenant written notice of her intent to enter the premises. That notice must include the date and time of the intended entry, as well as the purpose of the entry.
Unless the tenant agrees to entry during another time of day, the entry into the rental unit must occur during normal business hours, Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. The landlord may personally deliver the written notice to the tenant; leave it with someone of suitable age at the rental unit; or leave it on, near or under the entry door — somewhere near the door where it's safe to assume that it will be found. The notice may also be mailed, but must be sent sooner than one that's delivered by hand.
What Is Reasonable Notice?
The Civil Code says that the "landlord shall give the tenant reasonable notice," which immediately brings up the question: What is reasonable notice, anyway? Fortunately, Section 1954 goes on to specify that 24 hours is what state law usually considers a fair amount of heads-up. If the landlord can prove that it's impracticable to provide that amount of notice, it's possible to enter the unit on shorter notice. As the law puts it, 24 hours "shall be presumed to be reasonable notice in absence of evidence to the contrary."
However, if the notice is sent by mail, the definition of reasonable notice changes quite a bit. In this case, the notice must be mailed a minimum of six days before the date of intended entry.
Exceptions to the Notice
Civil Code Section 1954 also mentions a few circumstances in which it is legal for the landlord to enter the dwelling unit without providing any notice to the tenant. Chiefly, the landlord is allowed to enter in cases of emergency. While that may be a broad definition, that singular phrase is as detailed as the law gets. (The nonprofit Coalition for Economic Survival gives fires or gas leaks as examples of legitimate emergencies.) Of course, landlords may also enter once the tenant has abandoned or surrendered the premises. As with emergencies, entry in this case may occur outside of normal business hours. Landlords may also enter the property without notice pursuant to a court order.
The tenant and landlord can make an oral agreement — no written document required — regarding entry into the unit for the purpose of making repairs or for providing agreed-upon or necessary services like spraying for bugs, for example. Under the law, this type of oral agreement must include the date and approximate time of the entry, which should occur within a week of the agreement. Likewise, if the landlord shows up and requests entry into the rental unit, and the tenant consents to that entry at that time, the entry is legal.
Exhibiting the Premises
The rules change a bit when the purpose of the landlord's entry is to exhibit the rental until to prospective or actual purchasers. In this case, the notice of entry may be conveyed orally, in person or via phone. However, for this sort of oral notice to be legal, the landlord or the landlord's agent must have previously given the tenant written notice that the property is up for sale and that the landlord may contact the tenant orally to notify her of his intent to exhibit the premises. This written notice must have been received by the tenant in the previous 120 days.
Here, as elsewhere, 24 hours is usually considered reasonable notice for entry, and even the oral notice must cover the date, approximate time and purpose of the entry. When the landlord or agent enters the premises to exhibit the unit, they must also leave written evidence of their entry.
Right of Entry Abuses
California state law protects the tenant's privacy plainly in Civil Code Section 1954(c), which states that the landlord may not abuse the right of access or use it to harass the tenant. According to the tenants' rights advocates at the Coalition for Economic Survival, examples of such abuses may include daily entry, an excessive range of entry time or excessive open houses. In terms of notice, the CES puts it this way: "The nature of the reasonableness of the notice seems to be to give you time to pick up the place, secure pets, arrange to be there or otherwise make ready for the visit."
In general, if a landlord doesn't comply with the law's requirements for entering a tenant's rental unit, San Francisco litigation attorney Brian J. O'Grady notes that the landlord, as well as anyone invited to access the property illegally, can be found guilty of criminal trespassing. The CES notes that this is a two-way street, though. If tenants act repeatedly in an unreasonable manner to deny the landlord entry to the premises, the landlord may legally enter, so long as the entry is peaceful — not while the tenant is home and shouting, "Don't come in!" And entry must occur during normal business hours.