Unlawful detainer in California: responsibilities for landlords seeking to evict tenants

By Barbara Craig, Attorney at Law

Evicting a non-paying tenant is an unpleasant but sometimes necessary process. There are several key steps that must be taken to comply with California law and omitting or improperly completing any of these steps can result in unnecessary delays in your eviction case. Knowing your responsibilities and when you might need to seek expert legal assistance can make the eviction process run more smoothly.

The 3-day notice

unlawful detainer noticesThe first step in the eviction process is issuing the tenant a notice to either pay rent or to vacate the property. This is sometimes referred to as a 3-day notice, and can be used to initiate a potential eviction — but it must be created properly in order for it to have any legal standing before a court of law.

Common mistakes made when preparing a 3-day notice include:

  • Sending the notice too soon, before the tenant is actually in default.
  • Indicating an incorrect or imprecise amount owed, or misstating the date the rent was due.
  • Including additional charges in the amount due, such as late fees or utilities.
  • Failing to provide specific instructions for payment including to whom, how, and where the payment can be made.
  • Omitting a demand for possession of property if the rent remains unpaid.
  • Lacking a date and/or signature of the landlord or landlord’s agent.

Serving the 3-day notice

Once created, the notice must be properly served, which is another point at which the process may break down. The landlord or their agent – such as a professional process server — must attempt to serve the tenant personally. If personal service is not possible, the notice can be served to someone who is at least 18 years old and is located at the property. In this case, a copy must also be mailed to the tenant. This is called substitute service.

If the landlord or agent cannot find anyone on the property and/or the tenant is evading service, the notice can be posted on the door where it can be easily seen and also mailed to the tenant. This is called service by posting, and is sometimes referred to as “nail and mail.” Simply posting the notice or mailing the notice to the tenant is not considered effective service. The notice must be both posted and mailed for it to be effective.

Filing the unlawful detainer action in court

If a 3-day notice is properly executed and served and the tenant has not complied with the demand to pay rent or vacate the premises, an unlawful detainer proceeding may begin to achieve an eviction. To initiate an unlawful detainer action, the landlord must prepare a summons and complaint to be filed with the local court of jurisdiction which hears unlawful detainer cases.

In addition to the summons and complaint, the landlord must also prepare and include a civil case cover sheet and civil case addendum. Failure to include these documents will prevent a case from being filed.

In some cases, a tenant – particularly any occupants of the property who are not listed on the lease agreement – may try to fight an eviction proceeding by claiming possession of the premises. Many landlords find it helpful to prepare and file a pre-judgement right of possession, which must be served to the unnamed tenants along with a copy of the complaint and the summons. This has the effect of making the unauthorized tenants “named” in the lawsuit, so that they may be evicted along with the tenant(s) listed on the lease agreement.

Risks of DIY evictions

If any of these steps are not done correctly, the case may be thrown out and the eviction process will have to be started over again from the beginning. Because evicting a tenant is a serious matter – effectively rendering them homeless – the courts have little tolerance for even minor procedural or paperwork errors, and many cases are dismissed over seemingly trivial technicalities.

Even a perfectly executed eviction can take 4 to 6 weeks. If the clock is started again for any reason, the process can last months. Such delays can be costly to a landlord who is not receiving the expected revenue from a property. With the median monthly rent in Los Angeles now exceeding $2000, failure to complete the eviction process on a timely basis can lead to thousands of dollars of lost rent.

Are you a landlord or property manager with questions about evicting tenants — including 3-day notices, pre-judgement right of possession filings,  and unlawful detainer proceedings, or other landlord-tenant law concerns? Contact San Pedro Attorney Barbara Craig to schedule a free consultation. Serving clients in the South Bay area including San Pedro, Rancho Palos Verdes, Lomita, Harbor City, Torrance, Wilmington, Long Beach and other area communities.