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The California Eviction Process: Cost & Steps

Olivia Back

The dreaded eviction. A nightmare for both tenants and landlords, the eviction process is lengthy and expensive. It involves months of back and forth with attorneys, the court, and your tenants. 


Many property owners aren’t fully aware of the costs and steps involved in an eviction. In this article, we’ll review the different costs associated with the process and what steps are required. 


Attempt to Negotiate

The fight to get possession of your property can be an emotional one. “Many landlords lose sight of the true end goal because they get frustrated that they are in this situation. They want the eviction on the tenant’s record, no matter the cost,” said Natalia Vanni. “But the main goal of an eviction is to get your property back. If this can be achieved without starting the eviction process, we strongly recommend it.”


Before you start an eviction, you can offer your tenant an alternative as a last-ditch effort to get them to vacate. This could include giving them a set deadline to vacate or requesting they pay any outstanding rent or any fees you have incurred by filing the initial paperwork. 


Unfortunately, not all tenants will want to negotiate. They may think you will not proceed with the eviction, so they stand their ground. But if you have exhausted all other options, it’s best to begin the eviction process. 


Steps of an Eviction 

The timeline of an eviction varies but often takes 3 to 4 months minimum to complete from start to finish. In 2022, we are seeing the process take at least 5 months as a result of additional tenant protections originally put in place due to the pandemic.


Because so much of the timeline relies on response from the court, landlords often experience long waiting periods with infrequent updates from their attorneys. 


1. Post the Notice

The first step is to serve your tenant with the initial notice, which will inform them of the issue and what is required of them to resolve it. You must have a legal reason for evicting the tenant, such as nonpayment of rent, lease violation, property damage, nuisance, or illegal use. The different types of notices are as follows: 


  • 3-Day Notice to Pay Rent or Quit – for failing to pay rent.
  • 3-Day Notice to Cure or Quit/Perform a Covenant or Quit – for curable violations, such as not maintaining the rental unit in a clean and sanitary manner or for having unauthorized pets.
  • 3-Day Notice to Quit – for incurable violations, such as illegal activity, excessive property damage, criminal activity, etc. 
  • 30/60 Day Notice to Quit – for termination of the lease agreement. This is most commonly used for terminating month-to-month tenancies. 


Fill out the appropriate notice completely and serve it. Be sure to conform to all other service requirements, such as mailing the notice on the same day. If you are already working with your attorney, they can assist you with this. Make a copy of the notice for your records and fill out a proof of service (This will be important to record, should the case escalate to the courts).




2. File With the Court

Once the deadline on the notice has passed, you can file with the court. Gather copies of all necessary documents, including: 


  • The lease or rental agreement and any written changes the tenant agreed to 
  • The notice you gave your tenant
  • Written proof your tenant was given the notice
  • The tenant's rental application
  • The tenant's ledger
  • Any other important communications the attorney should be aware of


You will then fill out the Summons and Complaint for unlawful detainer forms, and your attorney will file them with the court. Make copies of everything submitted and post the Summons and Complaint to your tenant. Be sure to check with your local courts to see if there are any other forms you need to submit.


3. Trial or Default Judgment 

Once your tenant is notified, they will have five days to respond. The two standard responses are no response or the tenant filed an Answer. If they did not respond, you can ask for a default judgment. An Answer from the tenant means they intend to fight the eviction. 


If your tenant does not contest the Summons and Complaint, the judge will order a default judgment for the tenant to pay court costs and attorney fees. Five to 14 days later, you’ll get a Writ of Possession, which instructs the sheriff to lock the tenant out of the property. The sheriff will visit the property and notify the tenant that they must be out in five days. If they are not, they will be forcibly removed.


If you do not receive a default judgment, your case will go to trial. Once the defendant files a response with the court, the trial will normally be set within approximately 20 days. If the defendant files pre-trial motions and/or requests formal discovery (interrogatories/depositions), additional delays might occur.




4. Decision

The judge will make a decision after hearing both sides. They will either side with you and the tenant will vacate, or they will side with the tenant and the tenant will remain in your property. 


A Writ of Possession will be issued in the event you win the case. The sheriff will post this notice to the tenant five to 15 days after judgment and the sheriff lockout will occur approximately one week later. You should be prepared to meet the sheriff for the lockout and hire a locksmith. They will change the locks so the tenant cannot access the property.


The judge may also order your tenant to pay back rent, damages, penalties, and costs (attorney and court fees) related to the case. If your tenant wins, you may have to pay their costs associated with the case. 



Cost Breakdown 

There are a few different types of fees involved in an eviction. In total, an eviction will likely cost you around $3,000-$4,000 (not including lost rent). 


Attorney Fees 

You’ll need to hire an attorney for any eviction proceedings. They know the law much better than you do and can provide valuable information throughout the process. Hiring an attorney will cost you a minimum of $500, but it will more likely be closer to $2,000, should the enter eviction process play out.


Court Fees

The first step of any eviction process is to file a claim with a court. Depending on your location, this fee will vary. In San Diego, you can expect to spend between $250 to $450 on the initial filing depending on the total case amount. 


Lost Rent 

This is one of the biggest and most frustrating costs to endure during an eviction. Evictions often take months to complete, which leads to months of rent your tenant isn’t paying and could add up to thousands of dollars in losses for you. 


This problem has only worsened since the start of the pandemic. Multiple eviction moratoria have been enacted throughout the county, resulting in a backlog of cases for the San Diego courts. 


“We are seeing each step of the eviction process take three times longer than it used to,” said resident property manager Bryce Baker. “An eviction we filed in July of this year [2022] is stuck in the Summons and Complaints phase whereas, pre-pandemic, we could expect the entire process to be complete by now.” 


Even if you win the case, owners typically reclaim only 40-50% of lost rent. When an eviction goes to collections, the collection company will negotiate the amount owed with the tenant directly, often for a lower amount than is technically owed. From there, collection companies retain 50 to 60% of the collected amount, leaving the owner with only that 40 to 50%.


Property Damages 

Unfortunately, along with nonpayment of rent usually comes property damages. Once a tenant has been served, they will lose interest in maintaining your property. You’ll already have your standard turnover costs once the tenant finally vacates, but these costs will likely be higher than usual after an eviction. Keep in mind that you can use their security deposit for these damages and for unpaid rent. 




Preventing an Eviction

Finding a great tenant at the start can help you avoid messy legal situations. The best way to prevent the need for an eviction is thorough tenant screening. Create a written rental criteria to stick to. 


You should always require the following from an applicant: 

  • Government-issued photo ID
  • Income verification
  • Landlord contact info for the last 3 years


Once you’ve received a completed application, run a credit and background check on the applicant. Credit history can be a big indicator of potential issues. 


You can also list common reasons to deny an applicant, such as having a credit score below 624, previous eviction judgments, collections from former landlords, negative landlord references, and non-discharged bankruptcies. 


Even a great screening process doesn’t guarantee you won’t encounter problems with a tenant. The most common reasons for an eviction are nonpayment of rent or what’s called a holdover tenant. These are tenants who refuse to vacate once their lease ends. 


As we mentioned previously, it’s best to negotiate with your tenant before proceeding with an eviction. “Evictions should only be utilized when negotiating is not possible and there is no other choice,” said resident property manager Brent Zimmer. “It's painful for all parties involved, especially the [property] owner.”





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