Last month I wrote about wacky tenants. Not one to discriminate, this month is devoted to wacky landlords. With many people looking for affordable housing, it is only a matter of time before the pursuit of the almighty buck turns that shed into a “cute rental” or a converted garage into a “cottage-by-the-sea.” Granted, some people really need a little extra cash, but opening up your shack to a tenant is fraught with peril.
Illegal rentals abound in this county and many of them are truly uninhabitable. This is why the county has a relocation ordinance. If a unit in the county, including San Lorenzo Valley, is found to be illegal, without a certificate of occupancy issued by the county, the owner is required to pay the tenant relocation expenses. This typically ends up being thousands of dollars. (Scotts Valley does not have a relocation ordinance.) Whether the unit is in Scotts Valley or San Lorenzo Valley, the tenant can also sue the owner for all the rent he/she has paid because the law considers not only the unit to be illegal, but the rental contract to be illegal.
The cost of an illegal unit doesn’t necessarily stop with paying back the rent. There are also statutory penalties for doing foolish things, like turning off utilities. There could be further penalties depending upon whether the structure is considered uninhabitable. It is very difficult to defend these types of lawsuits, because it is not a defense to say that the tenant knew it was illegal, or even if the unit would have been issued a certificate of occupancy had only the owner followed the permitting process.
In my experience, landlords with illegal units have far more problems with uninhabitable premises than landlords who take the time and money to ensure that the unit is legal. I’ve also found that they tend to be more hostile to their tenants. In a fairly recent illegal rental case, the landlord got tired of his tenant, turned off the propane, turned off the satellite TV and nailed a sheet of plywood over a window. He also allegedly took a shot or two at his tenant with some kind of a gun, which got him arrested. He was supposedly upset that the tenant smoked on her porch, blowing the smoke toward the main house.
But wacky landlords aren’t completely out of luck. In court, they are entitled to the reasonable rental value of the illegal premises. Then again, how high will that rent be if the unit is found to be uninhabitable or if you’ve turned off the gas in the middle of winter so there is no heat, no hot water, and no cooking facilities? I challenge you to find a sympathetic judge or jury.
There is no such thing as self-help when it comes to evicting a tenant in California. Any action outside of proper legal action to evict a tenant is illegal, and will almost certainly end up costing the landlord in the long run. By far, the most common legal action to evict a tenant is called an unlawful detainer. Before an eviction lawsuit is filed, a landlord must give the tenant notice that he might file such a lawsuit. Depending on the reason for the eviction, a notice can be three, 30, 60 or 90 days.
Most unlawful detainers are for unpaid rent which only requires a three-day notice. Despite old wives tales that it takes months and months to get a tenant out, a properly conducted unlawful detainer for nonpayment of rent will only take about three weeks if the tenant doesn’t answer the lawsuit or about four to six weeks if it goes to trial.
But trying to get a tenant out of an illegal unit could indeed take months and months. This is because an illegal contract cannot have back rent so a landlord cannot issue a three day notice to pay rent or quit. This usually means either a 30 or 60 day notice to vacate depending upon how long the tenant has lived there. Or, if the tenant has complained about habitability, one cannot evict within 180 days of the complaint. Paradoxically, the quickest way to get a tenant out of an illegal unit is for the landlord to report his illegal unit to the authorities. This is because they will issue an order to vacate the unit in a short amount of time. Of course, that just starts another round of headaches for the landlord.
No wonder some landlords go wacky.
- Gary Redenbacher of Scotts Valley is an attorney in private practice. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org