A subtenant in the state of California has all the same protections as a master tenant, who is the person on the lease. Similarly, a master tenant has the same obligations to a subtenant as their landlord does to them. When evicting a subtenant, whether it be for unpaid rent , a lease violation or any other reason, the master tenant must follow the proper legal procedures, as violating a subtenant's legal rights can lead to a wrongful eviction lawsuit against them.
Landlord-Tenant Relationship in California
In California, individuals become tenants when they live in a dwelling for at least 30 days and pay rent. Through tenancy they gain certain tenants' rights, including those covered under state laws and rent control, if available in their city and for their type of building. A person doesn't need a written lease to show they are tenants, but having one spells out the tenancy's terms and clearly defines the relationship between a landlord and their renters.
If a California tenant pays another tenant to live in a room or rental unit, that person is a subtenant. The person they pay rent to becomes, in essence, their landlord, known as the master tenant. The master tenant rents the residence from their landlord under a written or oral contract and collects the rent from the subtenant. They are also point persons for dealing with the landlord about repairs and other issues when they come up.
Cotenants are different than subtenants because they have a relationship with the landlord by paying rent directly to the landlord, requesting services to their residence, and cosigning the lease.
What Is a Sublease?
The master tenant may put together a sublease between themselves and the subtenant. Under this contract, the subtenant agrees to pay rent to the master tenant, who then pays the landlord. The subtenant's rights are equal to those of the master tenant, meaning if the master tenant is on a month-to-month lease, so is the subtenant.
When a subtenant signs a lease with a master tenant, the master tenant is responsible for any issues with the subtenant that may arise, as the subtenant has no actual dealings with the landlord. They are the master tenant's responsibility.
A sublease should include:
- Signatures of both the master tenant and the subtenant.
- Amount and due date of the rent and how the master tenant is to receive payment.
- Security deposit information.
- Who pays for utilities such as electricity, water, gas, and trash.
- Start and end dates of the agreement.
- Necessary information about possessions, parking, pets and landscaping as applicable.
- Details of care and use of the rental unit and the master tenant's possessions.
Rules for Subletting in California
In California, a tenant can sublet to someone else unless their lease explicitly states otherwise. Even if a California landlord forbids subletting, depending on the city, a tenant may still be able to sublet to someone, regardless of this law. For example, San Francisco allows tenants to add or replace roommates to keep the rent manageable, according to the city's Rent Board.
Master tenants who wish to ask permission to have a subtenant should do so in writing. If a landlord denies permission, they must have reasonable justifications for doing so and detail their objections in writing to the tenant. This doesn't include not liking them or hoping to charge higher rent. Reasonable objections include:
- Subtenant poses a danger to others living on the property.
- Subtenant has poor credit.
- Landlord lacks information about the subtenant.
- Subtenant gives false information to the landlord.
Reasons for Ending a Subtenancy
When a master tenant wishes to evict a subtenant in California, they don't always need to have a reason for doing so; however, there are certain cities, such as San Francisco and Richmond, in which "just cause" is necessary for eviction. These reasons allow a master tenant to evict someone more quickly as they are justified responses to bad behaviors. Subtenants who do any of the following will receive just three days' notice to vacate:
- Non payment of rent.
- Committing a violation of the rental agreement.
- Causing property damage.
- Interfering with others on the premises.
- Committing violent acts against other tenants.
- Using the residence for illegal purposes.
- Committing drug- or weapon-related crimes.
- Dog fighting or cockfighting on the property.
If the rental is one in which there is no written agreement or there is a written agreement that is not a lease and the subtenant has paid rent or lived with the master tenant for more than 30 days, they are under a month-to-month tenancy. In this instance, the state allows master tenants to give subtenants 30 or 60 days' notice to leave – a 30-day notice applies to subtenants living in a unit for less than a year; a 60-day notice applies to those living a residence for more than a year, according to the California Courts. The landlord need not have any reason, but whatever the case for eviction, a master tenant cannot evict someone in a retaliatory or discriminatory fashion.
California Eviction Process for a Subtenant
When a master tenant decides to kick out a subtenant in California, they can't just do so on a whim. They need to follow a specific legal process. First, they have to provide the subtenant with written notice of their intent to evict. This will detail the time they have left.
However, if the subtenant complies with the master's demands as described in the eviction notice, they may continue living on the rental property. If a master tenant provides a subtenant with a three-day notice to quit, for example, if a subtenant fails to pay the rent, the same thing applies. The master tenant must detail the reasons for the eviction in a written letter.
Court Process When the Subtenant Refuses to Vacate
After the notice period is over, if a subtenant refuses to leave the premises, the master tenant can file an unlawful detainer action against them to initiate a formal eviction process. To do this, they must file a complaint with the court and serve it with a summons to the subtenant. After receiving these documents, the subtenant has five days to respond or vacate the residence. If they respond, the court will set a date for a hearing that both parties must attend.
If the judge rules in favor of the master tenant, a sheriff will then serve the subtenant with a 5-day "lockout" notice to vacate. If they still refuse to leave at that point, law enforcement will physically remove them, and the master tenant can legally change the locks.
- City of Berkeley: Subletting and Replacing Roomates
- San Francisco Rent Board: Topic No. 151: Subletting and Replacement of Roommates
- City of Berkeley: Subletting
- California Legislature: AB-1481 Tenancy Termination: Just Cause
- Nolo: What's the Difference Between a Tenant and a Subtenant?
- California Courts: Eviction Notices
- San Francisco Rent Board: Topic No. 210: Evictions of Roommates and Subtenants
- City of Richmond: Handling Difficult Housemate Situations
Michelle Nati is an associate editor and writer who has reported on legal, criminal and government news for PasadenaNow.com and Complex Media. She holds a B.A. in Communications and English from Niagara University.