When can a landlord enter a tenant’s unit (e.g. apartment)?

Tenants are entitled to exclusive possession of the premises they rent, even to the exclusion of the landlord.  Owners, landlords, property managers, or the landlord’s agents cannot simply enter a tenant’s unit anytime they please and for any reason.  Tenants should be aware that the State of California has limited permissible reasons for landlords to legitimately enter the premises and there are notice requirements for all non-emergency entries.

While the majority of landlord entries are for agreed-upon and necessary repairs that the tenant is happy to accommodate, the tenant does not have to comply with excessive requests by the landlord that are without a specific legitimate purpose or without a proper legal notice.  Often, these types of requests are not only illegal but also are a sign of harassment, or a foreshadowing of a forthcoming attempt to evict the tenant or of a plan to sell the unit.

A landlord may only enter a tenant’s unit without prior notice under the following circumstances:

  1. There is an emergency that requires the landlord to enter (i.e. fire or flood);
  2. The landlord obtains a court order;
  3. The tenant has abandoned or surrendered the unit; or
  4. The tenant consents.  Cal. Civ. Code § 1954.

A landlord may enter a tenant’s unit with prior written notice under the following circumstances:

  1. To conduct necessary or agreed upon repairs;
  2. To show the unit to mortgagees;
  3. To show the unit to workers or contractors;
  4. To show the unit to prospective tenants or purchasers; or
  5. For a pre-move out walk-through to evaluate damage at the tenant’s request.  Cal. Civ. Code § 1954.

How much advance notice does a landlord have to provide before entering?

The law does not specifically define a set amount of time that a landlord has to give before entering.  The law instead says “reasonable” prior notice is required.  A twenty-four hour written notice to the tenant is considered a “reasonable” notice.  

What does the notice of entry have to include to be valid?

The notice must be a written notice that gives the date and time the landlord plans to enter the unit, and the purpose for entry.  Cal. Civ. Code § 1954(d).

A written notice requesting entry to the tenant’s unit needs to be either personally delivered to the tenant, left with someone of a suitable age and discretion at the unit, or left at a usual entryway of the premises in a manner in which a reasonable person would discover it.  Cal. Civ. Code § 1954(d).  If the written notice is mailed, it must be post marked at least six days prior to the intended entry date.  Id. Note that the law does not allow email notices unless the email notice is to request entry to show the unit for sale or re-rental and the proper initial written notice is given to the tenant.  Cal. Civ. Code § 1954(d)(2).  Please see below for further information on this subject.

What does “normal business hours” mean?

Unless otherwise agreed to, the landlord may only schedule the time for entry during normal business hours (Monday-Friday, 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.).  Cal. Civ. Code § 1954(d).  However, if a landlord (or their real estate agent or real estate broker) is entering the unit to show it to prospective purchasers or renters, or to hold an open house, hours during the weekends are considered to be within “normal business hours” for those types of activities.  In a recent case, the court held that “…the term ‘normal business hours’ in section 1954 means objectively reasonable hours under the facts and circumstances of the case, keeping in mind the right of tenants to quiet enjoyment and the right of landlords to sell their property.  Thus when a landlord seeks to exhibit a leased dwelling unit to prospective or actual purchasers, he or she may only enter the property during reasonable hours, unless the tenant consents to another time.”  Dromy v. Lukovsky, 219 Cal. App. 4th 278, 286 (2013).  The court in that case affirmed the lower court’s declaratory judgment in favor of the landlord that allowed the landlord to show the unit for sale during limited hours on weekends.  Id at 280.

Do landlords need to give a twenty-four hour written notice to enter the tenant’s apartment to conduct non-emergency repairs?

Yes.  Any agreed upon or necessary non-emergency repairs require the landlord to provide the tenant with a twenty-four hour written notice that states the date, time, and purpose for entry prior to the landlord entering the unit.  Cal. Civ. Code § 1954(d)(3)

Keep in mind that if the entry is for repairs that were not requested by the tenant, and are instead for landlord-determined “required” or “necessary” reasons per the notice, the tenant is within their legal rights to question whether the repair really is needed.   For example, installing new towel racks in the bathroom may not be “required” or “necessary”, but changing out an old toilet for a new water-conserving one to meet city standards may be.  If the tenant determines that the repair is unnecessary, they may write the landlord a letter stating as such and that they chose not to have the work done. 

Can a landlord enter a tenant’s unit to merely “inspect” it?

No.  Tenants should note that a general inspection of the unit, even if only done annually, is not a permissible reason for entry under California law.  Random non-specific inspections are not legal, regardless of whether the tenant was provided proper notice or not.  When the landlord states the purpose for entry is to generally “inspect” the unit, the tenant should have the landlord clarify what specifically they are planning to inspect and have them put it in their written notice to the tenant.  The request for inspection may be a lawful one, or the landlord may be attempting to enter the unit with an ulterior motive.  In that case, when the landlord refuses to specify a legitimate purpose behind the inspection, the tenant may be able to reasonably refuse to allow the landlord access.

Because the landlord is responsible for keeping the property in a habitable condition, they may need to enter to make periodic inspections (likely deemed “necessary services” under section 1954) for specific reasons such as to inspect the plumbing, electrical wiring, and smoke detectors to make sure they are operating in accordance with industry standards.  Such inspections still necessitate that the tenant be provided with a twenty-four hour written notice before the landlord enters.  If, however, the tenant believes that the notice is not in good faith and that the landlord’s real intent is to invade the tenant’s privacy with a general inspection entry, which is prohibited, they should consult with an attorney.

Additionally, the landlord may inspect the unit with the tenant upon moving in, and they may do a walk-through inspection with tenant when they move out.  Cal. Civ. Code § 1950.5(f)(1).

Another area of inspection that comes up occasionally concerns waterbeds.  The law provides that the landlord “…shall have the right to inspect the bedding installation upon completion, and periodically thereafter…” Cal. Civ. Code § 1940.5.  The twenty-four hour written notice requirement applies for the initial and subsequent waterbed inspections.  Id.

Can a landlord, their Realtor, real estate agent, or real estate broker enter the tenant’s apartment to show it to prospective tenants or prospective purchasers?

Yes.  Tenants must accommodate reasonable requests to show the unit to prospective tenants for re-rent or to prospective purchasers when the property is for sale.  If the request is to show the property during times on the weekend, those days would be considered within the allowable “normal business hours.”  Dromy v. Lukovsky, 219 Cal. App. 4th 278, 286 (2013).

If entry is needed to show the unit to prospective tenants or purchasers, the landlord must provide the tenant with an initial written notice that states the purpose for entry and that states that the landlord or their agent (Realtor, real estate agent, real estate broker) can contact the tenant directly to make arrangements to show the property.  Cal. Civ. Code § 1954(d)(2).  Once that initial written notice is given to the tenant, for the next 120 days all subsequent notices to enter the unit to show it may be done over the phone or in person.  Id.  These verbal notifications must still provide the tenant twenty-four hours notice prior to the entry date and time.  Id.  The landlord or their agent must also leave written evidence that when they have entered the unit.  Id.

Even if the landlord provides the tenant with the proper initial written notice and their agent properly contacts the tenant in advance of every showing, this does not mean that the tenant has to subject themself to an unreasonable and excessive amount of showings.  It is reasonable for a tenant to agree to a schedule of one broker’s tour, one open house, and to one set time and day for a weekly showing.  Also, tenants are not required to agree to put a lock box on their front door.  Lock boxes potentially enable the landlord or their agent to enter at any time, which circumvents the law and is a violation of the tenant’s right to privacy.  If the tenant is pressured to do more than what seems reasonable, they should speak with an attorney about their options. 

When can a landlord enter the unit right away without providing the tenant with a twenty-four hour written notice?

Emergency:  If there is a genuine emergency that effects the health or safety of the tenant or in an emergency that requires immediate protection of the premises from damage, the landlord may enter the unit without giving a twenty-four hour written notice.  Cal. Civ. Code § 1954(e)(1).  Courts typically defer to a tenant’s right of privacy and right to quiet enjoyment of their unit, and will carefully examine the “emergency” which led to the landlord’s entry.   A broken water pipe in the wall that is causing damage to the unit would be considered an emergency, but a broken kitchen cabinet door would not.

Abandonment/Surrender:  When the tenant has abandoned or surrendered the premises, the landlord may enter the property.  Cal. Civ. Code § 1954(e)(3).  Occasionally, a tenant will not give notice to the landlord prior to moving out.  If rent is due and unpaid for fourteen consecutive days and the landlord has a reasonable belief that the tenant has abandoned the property without notice, the landlord may give the tenant a Notice of Belief of Abandonment.  The notice must be personally served to the tenant or sent via first class mail before the landlord can terminate the lease and entering the unit.  Cal. Civ. Code § 1951.3.  If the landlord does not believe that the tenant will receive the notice at the unit in question, they must also send a notice via first class mail to any known address that the tenant could reasonably be expected to receive the notice.  Id.  The notice must state the lease termination date as specified in the law, and once that date has lapsed, if the landlord has not received a response from the tenant, they may enter the unit.  Id.

Note that the Notice of Belief of Abandonment is not required by law, it is merely a good-practice procedure that, if followed properly by the landlord, evidences the landlord’s reasonable belief and relieves or lessens liability should there be a mistake. 

Consent:  A tenant and landlord may agree to the landlord’s entry to make agreed upon or necessary repairs.  Cal. Civ. Code § 1954(d)(3).  The parties can orally agree to the date and time of entry, which shall take place within a week of the agreement.  Id.  Also, a tenant can simply waive the written notice requirement by being present and agreeing to entry at the time of entry.  Cal. Civ. Code § 1954(e)(2).

Court Order:  If the tenant has continually refused the landlord’s legitimate request to enter the unit, they may seek a court order to force the tenant to allow them entry.  Cal. Civ. Code § 1954(a)(3).  Once the landlord obtains a court order, they will be accompanied by the Sheriff to assist with accessing the unit.

Typically, the first step to obtaining the court order to gain entry is to serve the tenant a Three-Day Notice to Cure or Quit in response to the tenant’s refusal to allow the landlord access to the unit.  If the tenant does not comply with the notice, the next step the landlord will take is to file an eviction lawsuit (unlawful detainer) against the tenant.  Once this lawsuit is filed, the owner may then apply for a court order allowing entry into the unit.  

Can a tenant refuse a landlord entry or access to their unit?

Tenants cannot unreasonably deny a landlord entry into their apartment.  If a tenant unreasonably refuses to give the landlord access to the unit, the landlord could use continual refusal as a basis to attempt to evict the tenant.  If the tenant’s refusal is based on the entry time and date being inconvenient, the tenant can request a workable date and time.  But the tenant cannot prevent the landlord from entering the unit as long as the landlord has a legal purpose and has complied with the notice requirement.   

What if the landlord repeatedly abuses the right to access the unit?

State law specifically prohibits the landlord’s abuse of the right of access to the unit and prohibits the use of the landlord’s entry to harass the tenant.  Cal. Civ. Code § 1954(c).  To determine whether entry by the landlord was proper, courts will balance the circumstances around the landlord’s entry with the tenant’s covenant of quiet enjoyment and the state and local anti-harassment statutes.

Implied in all California leases is a covenant of “quiet enjoyment”, which places a duty on the landlord to ensure the tenant’s peaceful possession of their unit.  Cal. Civ. Code § 1927.  This covenant protects the tenant’s right to privacy and peace and quiet.  Harassing tenants, snooping or spying on tenants, and letting themselves or other people into the unit without the tenant’s permission are all a breach of this covenant.

Also, it is illegal for landlords to harass their tenants.  It is harassment when a landlord enters the tenant’s unit in violation of the law.  Cal. Civ. Code § 1940.2.  Landlords who are found to have harassed their tenants are liable for punitive damages of up to $2,000 for each violation.  Id.  The City of San Francisco, the City of Oakland, and the City of Berkeley all also have local anti-harassment laws that provide for money damages.  S.F. Cal., Rent Ordinance § 37.10B, Oakland, Cal., Mun. Code § 8.22.600, and Berkeley, Cal., Mun. Code § 13.79.060.

If the landlord is interrupting the tenant’s quiet enjoyment of their home and is harassing the tenant by continually entering the unit contrary to the law, the tenant can call the police and should also consult with an attorney.  A landlord who enters a tenant’s apartment without permission is trespassing.  The tenant may have a claim for trespass, breach of contract, invasion of privacy, breach of quiet enjoyment, harassment, retaliation, wrongful eviction, and others.  

Tenants with questions about landlord and/or Realtor access to their apartment should contact Tobener Ravenscroft LLP to speak with an experienced attorney.