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What is an Unlawful Detainer in real estate?

Landlords and tenants will have disagreements from time to time. Some are relatively minor like a request to fix something covered in the contract, while others are more acrimonious where the landlord wants the tenant out. Nearly everyone understands what eviction means, but owners of commercial real estate often use special court proceeding called unlawful detainer to remove a tenant legally. This complicated area of law commonly applies to retail spaces in malls or shopping centers, office buildings and industrial buildings, but it can be used for residential tenants as well.

Common causes

Some of the most common reasons for using unlawful detainer is:

  • The tenant remains in the space beyond the length of the lease.
  • The tenant remains in the space after the landlord legally cancels the lease.
  • The landlord believes that the tenant is not paying their rent (14-days overdue is the minimum).
  • The landlord sells the property.

The landlord cannot evict the tenant themselves here in California – this needs to be done by the sheriff’s department. The landlord also can’t take actions that make the space difficult to occupy by locking out the tenant, turning off the water or electricity, or removing an outer door or windows.

Process moves very quickly

The landlord issues an eviction notice to the tenant in writing. If the tenant does not comply within the three-, 30- or 60-day window of the eviction, the landlord then issues an unlawful detainer, which the tenant has five court days to file a response (the landlord prevails if the tenant doesn’t). A court hearing follows 20 days later – the landlord prevails if the tenant does not attend the hearing. A writ is typically issued after the hearing that asks the tenant to leave. The tenant either vacates, or the landlord takes possession of the property after the sheriff’s office evicts the tenant.

Learn more about your issue

An attorney with experience handling unlawful detainer can provide a more detailed explanation of the process as well as knowledgeable insights into your specific case. They can also outline the best legal options under current laws here in California.