Get Ready to Rumble

nancyTenant concerns abound now, and especially in San Francisco. Each week, I hear things like: “My landlord sent me an email telling me that I have thirty days to vacate.” “My landlord texted me that I have to either get rid of my dog or move out in three days.” “My landlord called me and said I needed to make plans to leave in 60 days because she was selling the house.”

In the San Francisco Bay Area rental market, with high rents and low vacancy rates, tenants with such problems are rightfully concerned, especially those who are informed that they have 3, 30 or 60 days to find a new place. The news is dire, one might think. Most tenants who contact me about these notices are not wondering if they are legally valid, but they instead are upset and want to know if there is anything that can be done to slow or stop an eviction.

Landlords occasionally deliver invalid notices unwittingly, due to ignorance of the law, but more often it is a test balloon. Notices to terminate tenancy issued by email, telephone, verbal, or phone texts are not worth the paper they are not written on in the legal arena. If you get such a faux notice, do you call your landlord and gloat? Hell no. You seek legal advice and get ready to rumble.

Remember that all Notices Terminating Tenancy in California must be in writing, signed and delivered in person or by mail—US mail—aka snail mail. Of course, if you get a real written notice in your mailbox, seek legal advice and really get ready to rumble.

Your position may not be as bad as it might seem. You got a heads up and now have a leg up on the litigation that may come soon. Being forewarned is being forearmed.

Presently I represent a tenant who has severe habitability issues at her rented home. She asked for repairs. Her landlord told her that she did not intend to fix the problems, as she did not have the money for the repairs, and that the tenant should just move out. The landlord, in turn, would waive a month’s rent and give the tenant her deposit back. Before the month was up, however, the landlord issued a three-day notice to pay rent or quit and commenced an unlawful detainer lawsuit.

Now my client has a lawsuit, and she needs proof that she notified the landlord about the repair issues. I asked her if she wrote the landlord a letter about these problems. She replied, “No.” I then asked her, “Was anyone present when you told your landlord about these repair problems? Where were you when you discussed these issues with your landlord?” And then came the revelation: She did not really talk with the landlord. They texted and emailed each other.

My client did not consider this to be “writing” the landlord. These written communications, however, are evidence, writings that can be brought into court. The emails and texts in that context are a great way to prove communications. Just be careful what you type. Think about your text/email being exhibit number one in a jury trial.

A tenant who wants to end the tenancy must give a written notice stating the move-out date and mail it by certified or registered mail to the landlord or the designated agent. Month to month tenancies can be terminated at any time of the month on thirty days notice. It does not need to be thirty days from when rent is due. Delivery of your notice is complete upon deposit in the mail. Of course, if you are breaking a lease or leaving on shorter time than the rental term, include the reasons for your having to vacate and be prepared to be on the hook for some additional rent, which could be taken from your deposit.

If you are forced to vacate due to conditions at the property beyond your control, then you may have been constructively evicted and that terminates tenancy immediately. But seek legal advice on this type of situation as soon as possible, and preferably before you vacate.

San Francisco-based attorney Nancy M. Conway specializes in civil litigation, tenant rights litigation, bankruptcy, family law, real estate and personal injury.