I believe that an apartment in my building has been abandoned. How should I proceed with entering and reclaiming this dwelling?
California has an expedited process permitting housing providers to reclaim rentals that are believed in good faith to have been abandoned. The process may be used if rent has been unpaid for more than 14 consecutive days, and you sincerely believe that no one is living there. This is not a means to lock out subtenants or what some refer to as squatters. If anyone, authorized or not, is living there, consult an attorney to begin the appropriate legal process. Declaring rental housing as abandoned and securing the space should only be used in rare circumstances where, quite literally, everyone has packed up and left.
Before an abandonment may be declared, a specific notice must be given. The basic notice content is as follows:
Notice of Belief of Abandonment
Civil Code Section 1951.3
To: John and Jane Smith, and all other occupants
Property to which this notice pertains: 1651 Larkin Street, Unit 1,
San Francisco, CA 94109
This notice is given pursuant to Section 1951.3 of the Civil Code concerning the real property leased by you at the above address. The rent on this property has been due and unpaid for fourteen (14) consecutive days and the property owner believes that you have abandoned the property. The real property will be deemed abandoned within the meaning of Section 1951.2 of the Civil Code and your lease will terminate on October 31, 2023, a date not less than eighteen (18) days after the mailing of this notice (or not less than fifteen (15) days after this notice is served personally), unless before such date the undersigned receives at the address indicated below a written notice from you stating both of the following: (1) Your intent not to abandon the real property; (2) An address at which you may be served by certified mail in any action for unlawful detainer of the real property. You are required to pay the rent due and unpaid on this real property as required by the lease, and your failure to do so can lead to a court proceeding against you.
[Your name, telephone, email, and physical address.]
The notice, for obvious reasons, is likely not served personally, so it is commonly posted on the front door and sent via regular mail to the apartment or to any known address where the resident can receive mail. Again, this is a seldom used procedure because in places like San Francisco there are usually subtenants or other unknown occupants living at the premises, and they cannot be locked out by this process. Only if there are no signs of life and this notice has been issued after rent is unpaid for at least 14 days and remains unpaid for 18-day notice period should you contemplate reclaiming the apartment.
Another problem you may encounter is that the rental is full of furniture and other personal property. Abandonment notices should list the property inside the dwelling. Note that Civil Code Section 1954 allows entry in the case of abandonment, so oftentimes management will notice an entry to ascertain if the unit is truly abandoned. This author usually includes a detailed list of observed personal effects with the abandonment notice, although arguably the more items that are in the home, the less likely there is an intent to abandon. Moreover, if the property is worth more than $700 re-sale value, you may have to conduct a professionally administered auction after the 18-day period.
In sum, obtaining an unlawful detainer judgment for possession predicated on nonpayment of rent is the safer route to a lockout. Reclaiming rental housing through the abandonment procedure should only be initiated if the premises genuinely looks as though everyone packed up their valuables and split, leaving only rubbish behind. And please never contemplate going this route if anyone is seen coming and going.