A rental agreement or a lease is a contract between a tenant and a landlord permitting occupancy of a dwelling unit. Each party has the right to terminate the agreement according to the terms of the contract or, in California, according to state and local laws. The notice to vacate form is used by the landlord or property manager to inform the tenant that they are exercising their right to end the tenancy. Once a tenant is served with a notice to vacate, they have two options: move out per the notice or stay and prepare to defend their position in court.
TL;DR (Too Long; Didn't Read)
When a tenant is served with a notice to vacate, the landlord is giving written notice that they are exercising their right to terminate the tenancy. The tenant can either move or prepare to defend against an eviction proceeding, known as an unlawful detainer action under California law.
Terminating a California Rental Agreement
Nothing lasts forever, and that includes rental or lease agreements in California. The timing and means of terminating a rental agreement depend on whether it is a lease or a month-to-month tenancy. A lease is a rental agreement for a set period of time, most often a year.
The tenant agrees to occupy the premises and pay a specified amount of rent for a year, and the landlord agrees to give up their rights to terminate the tenancy or raise the rent for this period. But the landlord is not obligated to renew the lease, absent language to the contrary in the contract, and they can terminate the agreement at the termination of the lease. Landlords can terminate the contract only during the lease term for good cause, such as a lease violation.
A periodic tenancy is a different animal. The tenant agrees to rent for a particular period of time, usually a month. To renew the tenancy, the tenant must prepay the next month's rent. Under state law, a landlord can terminate the tenancy for any nondiscriminatory reason at any time by giving the tenant 30 day's notice. This notice period doubles if a tenant has lived there for a year or more. Note that in rent control municipalities, good cause may be required for any termination of tenancy.
Notice to Vacate/Quit
Many landlords provide a tenant notice that they are terminating the tenancy by giving them a notice to vacate form, often called a notice to quit. This form basically sets out the names of the parties and the street address of the rental property, as well as when the tenancy began. It notifies the tenant that the landlord is exercising the right to terminate the tenancy and provides the effective date by which the tenant and all their property should be out of the unit.
Many people confuse a notice to vacate as an eviction notice, but eviction is not always the intention. For example, if a tenant leased a property for a year and the year is coming to a close, the landlord signals their intention not to renew the lease by serving the tenant with a notice to vacate or quit. Otherwise, the tenancy in California, turns into a month-to-month tenancy.
However, if a landlord serves a notice to vacate, and the tenant does not vacate, the landlord can file an action in court for unlawful detainer. Should the landlord win the unlawful detainer case, the tenant can be evicted.
Notice for Nonpayment of Rent
If a tenant fails to pay rent when due, the California landlord need not give a full month's notice but they may be able to remedy the issue and remain in occupancy. The form in California is called a Three-Day Notice to Pay Rent or Quit. It gives the tenant a very short period of time in which to hand over all of the rent due as specified in the notice or vacate the unit.
Certain other violations of the rental agreement can also result in a Three-Day Notice, like keeping a pet on the property when it is forbidden. In this case, the tenant has three days to remedy the breach of the agreement or to vacate the rental unit.
Unlawful Detainer Trial
A tenant may decide not to vacate the unit as demanded in the notice. If so, they can expect an unlawful detainer action to be filed by the landlord and they will have to prepare a defense. A number of defenses are available to tenants facing eviction, and even more in rent control jurisdictions that give tenants additional rights. A tenant can usually talk to people at their local rent control office to get more information about their options.
Even under state law, however, a California tenant has certain rights to occupancy. For example, even if a landlord has an absolute right to end a tenancy, they cannot do so for discriminatory or retaliatory reasons. For example, a landlord cannot end a tenancy to punish a tenant for reporting unsafe conditions to the authorities.
Both the tenant and the landlord file legal papers setting out their positions, then present evidence and witnesses at trial to prove their case. This can take weeks or months but, if the matter is not resolved among the parties, the judge ultimately renders a decision.
Writ of Possession
If the judge rules for the landlord in an unlawful detainer matter, the landlord wins the right to have the tenant evicted. Even at this point, self-help is not permitted. Rather, the landlord asks the court to issue a writ of possession, giving the renter five days to vacate the unit. The writ is delivered to the county sheriff or marshal who then serves it on the tenant.
When the five days are up, the sheriff comes back to the premises and, if the tenant has not left, they physically remove the tenant from the premises. Generally, the landlord engages a locksmith to arrive at the same time and change the locks.
Teo Spengler earned a J.D. from U.C. Berkeley's Boalt Hall. As an Assistant Attorney General in Juneau, she practiced before the Alaska Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court before opening a plaintiff's personal injury practice in San Francisco. She holds both an M.A. and an M.F.A in creative writing and enjoys writing legal blogs and articles. Her work has appeared in numerous online publications including USA Today, Legal Zoom, eHow Business, Livestrong, SF Gate, Go Banking Rates, Arizona Central, Houston Chronicle, Navy Federal Credit Union, Pearson, Quicken.com, TurboTax.com, and numerous attorney websites. Spengler splits her time between the French Basque Country and Northern California.