Ending a Month-to-Month Lease in California

You only need to give one month’s notice to end a month-to-month lease in California, even if your lease says you need to give more notice. This is my explanation of the law which can help you explain the rule to people who try to screw you over. This is not legal advice, I am not your attorney and if you need legal advice you should contact an attorney.

What is a month-to-month lease?

A month-to-month lease is exactly what it sounds like. Loosely speaking, it means that the lease has no specific end date; you pay rent monthly, and you can terminate the lease after any number of months. In other words, you’re not locked in for a full year if you want to leave early.

It is common for a residential lease to be for one year, and then become month-to-month. The lease contract can either state that explicitly, or you can end up in a month-to-month lease if the lease contract is silent on what happens after the initial year-long lease is done. Under California law, if a lease ends, the lease does not say that it renews for a definite period of time and the landlord continues to accept your rent on a monthly basis, then you have a month-to-month lease. This is stated in California Civil Code § 1945.

But don’t get too excited. Many leases (especially with corporate landlords) will say that they renew one year at a time and if you’re in that situation, you are probably stuck. If this describes your scenario, check that the lease makes certain required statements in a bold font. See California Civil Code § 1945.5. If it fails to make those statements, you can still cancel the renewal early.

How much notice do you need to give to terminate a residential month-to-month lease?

The answer is one month, according to California Civil Code § 1946.1.

It is very easy to get confused reading the law. California Civil Code § 1946 appears to be the statute that governs but it DOES NOT APPLY TO RESIDENTIAL REAL ESTATE. This is very important because § 1946 says that the parties can agree to make the notice period longer.

A hiring of real property, for a term not specified by the parties, is deemed to be renewed as stated in Section 1945, at the end of the term implied by law unless one of the parties gives written notice to the other of that party’s intention to terminate the same, at least as long before the expiration thereof as the term of the hiring itself, not exceeding 30 days; provided, however, that as to tenancies from month to month either of the parties may terminate the same by giving at least 30 days’ written notice thereof at any time and the rent shall be due and payable to and including the date of termination. It shall be competent for the parties to provide by an agreement at the time the tenancy is created that a notice of the intention to terminate the same may be given at any time not less than seven days before the expiration of the term thereof.

In plain English, § 1946 says: A month to month lease continues until either the tenant or the landlord gives 30 days’ notice of termination (which can be effective anytime, not just at the end of the month), however if it’s written in the lease contract, the parties can increase the notice period or decrease the notice period, as long as the notice period is at least seven days. However, even though this statute says nothing about residential real estate, it does not apply to residential real estate.

You have to turn the page to the next statute, California Civil Code § 1946.1, to get the answer. It begins:

Notwithstanding Section 1946, a hiring of residential real property for a term not specified by the parties, is deemed to be renewed as stated in Section 1945, at the end of the term implied by law unless one of the parties gives written notice to the other of his or her intention to terminate the tenancy, as provided in this section.

In plain English, this means “Yes, section 1946 seems like the statute to use, but ignore it. This is the section that applies when you're talking about residential real estate.” Could the law be written more clearly? Yes! Absolutely! The same could be said for many other statutes. That is just the way life is.

California Civil Code § 1946.1 says: “A tenant giving notice pursuant to this section shall give notice for a period at least as long as the term of the periodic tenancy prior to the proposed date of termination.” So there’s the answer. One month. Unlike § 1946, this statute does not allow the time to be altered in the lease.

If you get pushback from a landlord (or small claims court judge!) who says that this statute doesn’t specifically prohibit the parties from changing the notice period, it is worth pointing out that § 1946.1 was originally passed into law in 2001 specifically to fight abusive landlord practices. In addition to fixing the notice period for tenants, § 1946.1 also made it so that landlords have to give 60 days’ notice to terminate a month-to-month lease. In the senate committee report for the law as it was originally passed, it talks about how the bill was introduced in response to “several heart-breaking stories in the recent news: disabled persons being displaced, heart surgery being cancelled, seniors on fixed incomes finding it difficult to find affordable, replacement housing.” If the lease contract could change the notice periods to whatever the landlord wrote into the lease, then § 1946.1 would have served no purpose. (Note that it is no longer the case that landlords can terminate a month-to-month lease on 60 days’ notice without cause, due to the state-wide rent-control act. However that does not undermine the point that for twenty years § 1946.1 served to give tenants more notice that their lease was being terminated, and therefore it would not make sense to have allowed landlords to change notice periods in the lease contract.)

Note also that the statute does not say that you are required to give notice effective as of the end of the month. It just has to be a “period” at least as long as one month. So you could give notice on December 15 effective January 15.

One last thing: If you file a small claims lawsuit, you get one page to write out the facts. On that page you might want to consider writing out a simple sentence that although Cal. Civ. Code § 1946 might seem to govern notice periods for lease terminations, it is actually Cal. Civ. Code § 1946.1 which controls the notice periods for the termination of residential leases, and unlike the former, Cal. Civ. Code § 1946.1 does not allow the notice periods to be changed in the lease contract. Why do this? Because it’s not always the case that judges make decisions while you are standing there. They may take the papers and hand the papers to a law school intern to write up the decision. This intern is very likely not to know the law. It’s also possible that you might get a “temporary judge” on your case, meaning, a regular lawyer who is judging for fun. While the temporary judges are trained, they don’t have nearly the experience of an actual judge and they might forget which law applies. (Lawyers abbreviate California Civil Code as “Cal. Civ. Code” to save space. In the rest of this web page I wrote it out in full to make it easier for you to Google the statutes so you can read them for yourself.)

Speaking of shitty landlord behavior, what about “inspections”? Are they legal?

No. A lot of landlords think they have the right to barge into apartments for bogus reasons like “checking the smoke detector” or just “inspection.” California Civil Code § 1954 says there are only specific situations a landlord may enter:

I don’t see “checking the smoke detector” or other vague “inspection” listed as a reason, do you? Note that the Santa Monica Tenant Harassment Ordinance specifically says that the landlord is criminally liable for doing bullshit “inspections” and you can sue the landlord and get between one and ten thousand dollars.

This is prohibited:

Abus[ing] the landlord’s right of access into a rental housing unit as that right is specified in California Civil Code Section 1954. This includes entries for “inspections” that are not related to necessary repairs or services; entries excessive in number; entries that improperly target certain tenants or are used to collect evidence against the occupant or otherwise beyond the scope of an otherwise lawful entry

This is the penalty:

Criminal Penalty. Any person who is convicted of violating this Chapter shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction shall be punished by a fine of not greater than one thousand dollars or by imprisonment in the County Jail for not more than six months, or by both such fine and imprisonment.
Civil Action. Any person, including the City, may enforce the provisions of this Chapter by means of a civil action. The burden of proof in such cases shall be preponderance of the evidence. A violation of this Chapter may be asserted as an affirmative defense in an unlawful detainer action.
Injunction. Any person who commits an act, proposes to commit an act, or engages in any pattern and practice which violates Section 4.56.020 may be enjoined therefrom by any court of competent jurisdiction. An action for injunction under this subsection may be brought by any aggrieved person, by the City Attorney, or by any person or entity who will fairly and adequately represent the interest of the protected class.
Penalties and Other Monetary Awards. Any person who violates or aids or incites another person to violate the provisions of this Chapter is liable for each and every such offense for the actual damages suffered by any aggrieved party or for statutory damages in the sum of between one thousand dollars and ten thousand dollars, whichever is greater, and shall be liable for such attorneys’ fees and costs as may be determined by the court in addition thereto. Any violator shall be liable for an additional civil penalty of up to five thousand dollars for each offense committed against a person who is disabled or aged sixty-five or over. The court may also award punitive damages to any plaintiff, including the City, in a proper case as defined by Civil Code Section 3294. The burden of proof for purposes of punitive damages shall be clear and convincing evidence.
Nonexclusive Remedies and Penalties. The remedies provided in this Chapter are not exclusive, and nothing in this Chapter shall preclude any person from seeking any other remedies, penalties or procedures provided by law.

If you don’t live in Santa Monica, this ordinance does not apply to you. However your city might have its own tenant harassment ordinance, and at the very least you may be able to state a claim under the state law. You’ll have to do your own legal research. Like I said, I’m not your lawyer!