Guide to Laws for Homeowners and Property Owners in California

HomeownerIf you own a home or other residential property in California, here’s what you need to know about the law. If you are renter, see our Guide for Renters.

Many laws for homeowners and property owners are also made at the local level. See our Guide to Laws for Homeowners in the Los Angeles area and the San Francisco area.

For constitutional rights and what the government can or can’t do with your property, see our Guide to Property Rights in the U.S.

1. Guests & Parties

Do I need to take any particular actions with respect to my guests?

Yes. You must warn your guests of dangerous objects in your house that would not be obvious to them. If you don’t, and they get hurt, they can sue you for the harm suffered.1 Rowland v Christian (1968) 69 C2d 108, 119 (applying CC §1714(a))

What do I need to know about hosting a house party?

Also see our Guide to Laws about Noise.

Can I serve alcohol to guests at a house party or do I need a permit?

If your party is not open to the public, but is invite-only, and you do not sell alcohol or charge admission, then you would not need a license or permit to serve alcohol. Otherwise you will need to get a caterer/bartender licensed to serve alcohol. See our Guide to Alcohol Laws for more.

Is it illegal to serve alcohol to those under 21 at my house?

Yes, see our Guide to Alcohol Laws for more.

2. Unauthorized visitors

What are my rights regarding unauthorized visitors to my property?

In general, any person or thing that comes onto your property without your permission is considered trespassing. This includes homeless individuals. However, there are certain exceptions, including valid law enforcement activities, public utilities, etc.

If an unauthorized person comes onto your property and does not leave after you tell them to, you can have the police remove that person.

To make it clear that you do NOT give permission to strangers to come onto your property, including solicitors, you should post a sign that says “THIS PROPERTY CLOSED TO THE PUBLIC. No Entry Without Permission.”

3. Renting out your property

If I rent out my home or property, am I subject to rent-control laws?

Maybe. See our Guide to rent control laws.

Can I remove my tenants?

See our Guide to Laws for Tenants.

Can I rent out my property short-term, like on AirBnB or VRBO?

“Short-term rental” generally means less than 30 days (some cities define it as less than 31 days). The legal situation for short term rentals is changing rapidly; see our short term rental page for details.

4. Graffiti & Vandalism

See our Guide to Graffiti & Vandalism.

5. Water use and conservation

What do I need to know about using water in my home?

Throughout the state of California, during periods in which the Governor has declared a state of emergency due to drought, local governments and homeowners associations may NOT fine you for dry or brown lawns.2Cal. Civil Code Section 4735

6. Neighbors & Adjacent sidewalk and street

What are my responsibilities towards my neighbors?

It’s illegal to put up a fence or trees just to spite a neighbor!3People v. Hughes, CR A 167; CA Civil Code Section 841.4

Throughout the state of California it is a crime to create a “disturbance of the peace”4Penal Code 415 or to cause or maintain or allow a “public nuisance” which interferes with the “comfortable enjoyment of life or property” by a community.5Penal Code 370, 372

Also, after you receive notice from the government of a nuisance, each day that you fail to address the issue is considered a separate violation.6Penal Code 373a On top of this, some cities in Southern California have started charging violators for the legal costs of prosecuting them, adding up to many thousands of dollars!

Also it is a civil violation (which you can be sued for) to interfere with the “comfortable enjoyment of life or property” or another individual, referred to as “private nuisance.”7Civil Code Sec 3479

Whose responsibility is it to maintain the sidewalk and parkway in front of my house?

As the homeowner, legally it is your responsibility to maintain the sidewalk and ‘parkway’ (strip between sidewalk and the street) adjacent to your house so that it is safe for pedestrians. You must keep it clean, and repair any damage.

Does that mean I can be held liable if someone gets hurt on the sidewalk or parkway in front of my house?

Even though you have the responsibility to repair the sidewalk and parkway, you are not necessarily liable to compensate someone if they get hurt due to any such disrepair.8Jones v. Deeter (1984) 152 Cal.App.3d 798

7. Modifying your property or building new structures

Do I need to hire a licensed architect or interior designer to build or renovate my house?

See our Guide to Laws on Building Design and Guide to Laws for Interior design for more on this.

Do I need to get a permit for any work I do on my house?

If you want to add any square footage to your house, you almost certainly need to get a permit from the city (or county). But even if you aren’t adding square footage you may need to get a permit, and if you are in a homeowners association (HOA), you may need to get permission from the HOA. And all work must comply with the local Building Code.

Do I need to get a permit for any work I do on my house?

If you want to add any square footage to your house, you almost certainly need to get a permit from the city (or county). But even if you aren’t adding square footage you may need to get a permit, and if you are in a homeowners association (HOA), you may need to get permission from the HOA. And all work must comply with the local Building Code. See more here.

What does “up to code” mean?

When someone says a property is “up to code” they usually mean it complies with the current Building Code which sets safety standards for buildings.

If my property is zoned for single-family, does that mean I can only build one house on it?

Single-family zoning generally means you are limited to building a single primary unit on that property, along with a secondary unit, or ADU (see below). However, as of 2022, a new law allows most California homeowners on a single-family lot to subdivide the property into 2 lots, and build up to 4 units total. Read more about single-family zoning and the new law.

Can I build a secondary unit or “granny flat” on my property?

New California state law makes it easier and quicker to build an Accessory Dwelling Unit “ADU” (aka “granny flat”) on your property. Cities must respond to the permit request within 60 days, and may only deny a permit for health and safety reasons.9AB 68 (2019) Check out this new tool to find out if you can put in a granny flat.

And lawmakers are considering going even further, and could ban homeowners associations from restricting the construction of granny flats.

If I put in a rain-capture system will this increase my taxable value?

No, this is specifically excluded from assessed value for property taxes, due to the voters passing Prop 72 in June 2018.

Do homeowners need to install solar panels on the roof?

Starting in 2020, it is required for all new construction single family houses in California to have solar panels on the roof.

Can I sell off part of my property to someone else?

Possibly. You could have the property divided up into separate parcels, but this is a long complicated process. An alternative is to use a Tenancy in Common (TIC) arrangement.

8. Private streets & Homeowners Associations

What is a homeowners association or Co-op?

A homeowners association (usually abbreviated as HOA) or Co-op is an entity or organization that manages and governs a group of homes or condos. There is usually a monthly HOA fee each homeowner must pay, and many rules to follow.

Check with your HOA or Co-op Board for rules, often called the CC&Rs (covenants, conditions, and restrictions).

9. Government takeover or regulation of your property

Can the government seize my property?

The government may able to take your property for “public use” without your permission. This is known as eminent domain.10California specifically provides for this power starting at Cal Code Civ Proc § 1230.030 See our Guide to Property Rights in the U.S.

Can the government place significant regulations on my property?

Generally, yes. See our Guide to Property Rights in the U.S.

Can the government tell me what I can and can’t do with my property?

Generally, yes. See our Guide to Property Rights in the U.S.

10. Property Taxes

Are there limits on how high my property taxes can be?

Yes, in California the total property taxes you pay per year is limited to 1% of the “taxable value.” This is because voters passed Proposition 13 in 1978.

How is the taxable value of my house determined? 

The taxable value of a property in California is the most recent purchase price of the property, plus about 2% increase per year (or the rate of inflation, whichever is lower). The property can only be “reassessed” for tax purposes when there is a change in ownership. Again, these rules are due to Prop 13.

See more about Laws for Taxpayers.

11. Squatters Rights

Is squatters rights actually a thing?

Yes, it is. But it’s not what many people think it is. You can’t just run into a house and sit (or squat) and scream “Squatters Rights!”

There are two types of “squatter rights.” The first is when there is a legitimate rent-paying tenant (or someone pretending to be). If the landlord decides to terminate the lease, and the tenant refuses to leave, the landlord cannot physically remove the tenant herself. The landlord must get a court order and then get the police to enforce the order. Until then, the tenant essentially has the “right” to stay in the house (or apartment, condo, etc). But the tenant will likely be on the hook for the rent for those extra days. See Guide to Tenant Law for more.

The second type of squatter’s rights may sound a little crazy. In California, if a person moves into a vacant property and lives there and pays the property taxes for at least 5 years, he may then own that property! This is called “adverse possession,” and the purpose of it is to encourage property owners to maintain and tend to their properties, not to let them go to waste.11Code of Civil Procedure Sections 315-330

Further Resources

For legal help with property rights or any of these homeowner issues, see our Options for Legal Help in California.

Guide to Property Rights in the U.S.


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