California Eviction Laws: How to Evict a Tenant Without a Written Lease

Notice of eviction
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Many California renters do not occupy a dwelling unit under a written lease, but rather have a month-to-month tenancy. Landlords in California can evict tenants for just cause by giving written notice to terminate the tenancy and, if necessary, by going to court on an unlawful detainer action. Evictions in California look the same whether the lease or rental agreement is in writing or oral. However, some verbal agreements are illegal and unenforceable, and it is always more difficult to prove the terms of an oral agreement.

Tenancy Under a Lease

A lease is a rental agreement for a set period. In California, most leases are for a year or more and must, under a doctrine called the statute of frauds, be in writing. Leases for less than a year, like a six-month lease, need not be in writing.

Under a lease, the tenant agrees to stay the full term of the lease and pay the rental amount specified in the agreement, usually on a monthly basis. For example, if the lease is for a year and specifies monthly payments of $2,000, the tenant agrees to stay for 12 months and pay $2,000 at the beginning of each month. The landlord agrees to allow the tenant to stay for that period and not to raise the rent.

If a tenant under a valid lease decides to leave before the term is up, she will be responsible for the rental amount for the entire term. However, landlords in California are required to make a good faith attempt to mitigate damages by advertising for a replacement tenant.

Month-to-Month Tenancy

The more common type of tenancy in California is a periodic tenancy. This type of tenancy is usually for a month and is often called a month-to-month tenancy. It is renewed for another month by the payment of rent.

A month-to-month tenancy can be formed with a written rental contract. It can also be formed without a written rental contract. Finally, when a tenant's written residential lease period is over, but the tenant is permitted to continue to occupy the premises, the tenancy converts into a month-to-month tenancy.

A tenant living in a California dwelling unit under a month-to-month rental agreement is permitted to terminate the tenancy whenever she wants to. She must give 30-days' written notice to the landlord. By giving the correct notice, she will not be on the hook for any additional rent.

Eviction in California

Eviction is the legal process a landlord must follow in order to force a tenant to move out of a rental unit. No matter how this is portrayed in television programs or in movies, eviction is a matter for the courts, and landlords are not legally permitted to take matters into their own hands. Even if the tenant fails to pay rent or creates a disturbance, a landlord cannot switch the locks and dump the tenant's possessions on the sidewalk.

Generally, the process of eviction starts with a written notice from the landlord to the tenant terminating the tenancy. Some notices are conditional, allowing the tenant to cure a defect within a certain period of time and to continue living in the unit. Other notices are absolute and require the tenant to move out in a certain period of time, usually ranging from three to 60 days.

Voluntary Move Out

If the tenant moves out pursuant to the notice, the tenancy is ended. Note, however, that no eviction occurs in that case. If the tenant cures a curable defect within the time given — pays overdue rent after getting a conditional 3-day notice to pay rent or quit — there is no eviction. If the tenant does neither, the landlord must file an unlawful detainer lawsuit against the tenant if he wishes to proceed with a eviction.

"Just Cause" Eviction in California

Today, a California landlord is usually allowed to evict a tenant only for "just cause." Under a law that went into effect in January 2020, a landlord must have a reason for evicting the tenant that is listed in the just cause statute. This includes both fault causes and no-fault causes. The landlord must state the cause for the eviction in the written notice terminating the tenancy.

Fault causes include all of the usual suspects, like failure to pay rent, illegal activities or breach of the contract terms like keeping a pet against the rules. No-fault causes include legal reasons for terminating a tenancy that have nothing to do with the tenant's behavior. For example, if a landlord wants to occupy the unit as his principal residence, he is allowed to terminate the tenancy in most cases. Likewise, a no-fault just cause might be governmental action like an order to demolish the building.

Oral Lease Evictions

Evictions look pretty much the same in California regardless of whether the underlying agreement is a month-to-month agreement or a lease, and regardless of whether the agreement or lease is written or oral. However, there are a few distinctions.

First, the statute of frauds in California requires certain documents to be in writing. One of the documents that must be in writing is a lease that cannot be performed within one year's time. This means a lease of property for a term more than a year must be in writing. A landlord cannot sue for breach of an illegal oral lease.

If a tenancy is based on a written document, the tenant can be evicted for not following a significant provision. For example, if the contract specifies that it is forbidden to smoke in the unit, or that the tenant and all her guests must take their shoes off before entering the unit, the tenant must follow the provisions she agreed to. If the agreement is oral, the landlord may have a harder time establishing the specific terms of the agreement. If the tenant denies any knowledge of a no-smoking or no-shoes term in the agreement, a court might not uphold an eviction on that basis.

Unlawful Detainer in California

An unlawful detainer complaint charges that the tenant is illegally staying in an apartment after legal notice has been given requiring her to leave. The landlord must prove every element of this charge to the court, including his compliance with state landlord/tenant laws.

The landlord must state the cause for the eviction in the unlawful detainer complaint. The complaint must be given to (served on) the tenant in a manner specified in the statute, usually by personal service, which means having a third party hand it to her. The tenant can file an answer or other response within the timeframe set out in the law.

Ultimately, the judge or jury determines the questions of fact raised in the case. If the landlord proves his case, he gets a judgment against the tenant. That court order opens the door to having the sheriff evict the tenant and change the locks.

Rent Control Ordinances

California cities have the right to enact their own landlord/tenant laws, often termed rent control ordinances. Many have done so, including almost all of the major urban centers in the state. These ordinances are far from uniform; some restrict rent increases and severely limit landlord evictions, while others are far less sweeping.

If a landlord's rental property is within an area under a rent control law, he must not attempt to evict a tenant without becoming familiar with the terms of the law. It is often a good idea for both parties to obtain experienced legal representation.

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