Common Issues in California Rental Property Management: Tenant Abandonment

Tenants who are behind in the rent commonly just pack up and go without saying a word to the landlord and with time left on their lease. When you believe that your tenant has fled under cover of darkness and that your rental property is now uninhabited, what should you do?

The answer has two parts. First, you need to terminate the tenancy and prevent the tenant from returning. California law provides a simple method to achieve that goal. The landlord in such a circumstance need only serve a Notice of Belief of Abandonment on the tenant. (I provide a form notice as part of a packet of forms that I give to my to landlord clients free of charge). When can the landlord serve such a notice? The tenant must be fourteen days behind in the rent. The landlord must also “reasonably believe” that the tenant has abandoned the premises.

By “reasonable belief” the law means that the landlord must have facts that reasonably lead him to the conclusion that the tenant has left, facts such as accumulating mail or newspapers, disconnected phone or utilities, lack of vehicles, failure of the tenant to answer the door, and, if it’s possible to see in from the outside, the appearance that the premises are empty. Just to be sure, I advise clients to post a 24-hour notice of entry on the door and then return the next day and enter the premises to check if the tenant has moved out.

The next step is to serve the notice. The notice must be in writing and served at the tenant’s last known address, which is usually your rental property. I also advise clients to serve the notice to all addresses where the tenant is likely to receive it such as work addresses or the addresses of relatives stated on the rental application. The notice can be served either personally or by first-class mail.

Once the landlord serves the notice, the tenant has 15 days (18 days if the notice was served by mail) to respond in writing. In the response, the tenant must state that he has not abandoned the premises and must provide the landlord with an address where the tenant may be served by certified mail with any eviction case. If the tenant does not provide such a writing within the 15 or 18 day time period, then his tenancy is deemed terminated and the landlord may re-let the premises. The landlord is also free to serve a 3-day notice to pay rent or quit at any time permitted by the lease.

Second, the tenant’s abandonment does not cut-off his obligation to pay rent. The landlord must use reasonable efforts to find a new tenant. If the landlord does so, the abandoning tenant is still obligated for the rent through the end of the term. The tenant’s obligation ends when the landlord finds a new tenant, assuming that the new tenant is paying the same or higher rental rate. Once a new tenant is found, the landlord will be able to calculate the lost rent due to the tenant breaking the lease and may sue the former tenant.