If you own or manage rentals long enough, you’ll eventually have to learn how to evict a tenant and go through the eviction process.
Evicting bad tenants is expensive, time-consuming, and fraught with pitfalls. No really: evictions can take anywhere from two to twelve (12!) months. Many landlords make matters worse by hesitating to evict bad tenants, and then blundering through the long eviction process ill-prepared.
The Covid-19 pandemic certainly didn’t help, with eviction moratoriums letting many tenants live rent-free for over a year. Even after most eviction bans have lifted, many rent courts remain backlogged.
Understand how to evict a tenant before you ever need to start the eviction process, so you don’t waffle when tenants miss rent payments and otherwise push your boundaries.
Eviction Starts with a Paper Trail
You might think it’s easier to pick up the phone and ask Tom Tenant where the rent is. Or to give verbal warning after warning to the inconsiderate noisy renter, or to Sneaky Pete who slipped his pet python into the property (say that five times fast).
Repeat after me: “Telephone calls leave no trail.”
Phone calls can be a polite addition to written notices, but by themselves they just create a case of he-said she-said. No judge wants to referee between two spatting parties without hard evidence to lean on.
So, how do you keep good records going into the eviction process?
- Put everything in writing! If you are emailing, send it with a read receipt. If you text, screenshot it. Keep copies of all letters!
- In addition to your ledger, keep copies of all payments. If paid by cash, provide a receipt and get a signature; hold on to all paid check copies; money orders and account automatic deposits.
- If police or other authorities are called by neighbors, get a copy of the report. Make sure you write down the date, time and the officer’s name. Create your own incident report.
- Keep hard copies in a file, along with digital copies on your computer. When you’re sent a digital file, print it. When you’re given printed paper, scan it. You never know when you’ll lose either your hard copies or your digital files.
- Take pictures! Trash strewn all over the rental unit’s lawn? Take photos. Tenant left the apartment damaged? Take photos. Turn your date- and timestamp on before taking the photos, and consider taking a video of the damage. Most critically, take photos along with your Move-In/Move-Out Condition Statement, which should be signed by the renters at both move-in and move-out, and provide photos to the renter of each condition.
Know State & Local Eviction Laws!
Benjamin Franklin said it best: “An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”
Let’s face it, rental properties cost a pretty penny. Becoming knowledgeable of state, local and Federal regulations are a big part of your owner’s manual.
First, know that “self-help evictions” are a big no-no. A “self-help eviction” is when the landlord or property manager takes measures into their own hands to remove a tenant who has not paid or violated the lease or law. It’s illegal in every state.
What are some “self-help eviction” measures to avoid?
- Do not change the locks before the eviction lockout date.
- Do not touch or remove any of the tenant’s possessions.
- Do not shut-off utilities (even if the tenant has not paid).
- Do not stop making repairs. Tenants routinely use this in court as a defense.
- Do not harass, curse at, or threaten a tenant, occupant or guest. Be careful using social media and posting anything derogatory about them, no matter how much of a deadbeat they’ve been.
Overview of How to Evict a Tenant: Infographic
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Eviction Process Step 1: Written Notice
Every state requires landlords to serve their tenants with a written eviction warning notice before they can file in court for eviction. (Psst: we offer eviction notices for all 50 states through our online landlord software, free of charge. Just saying.)
These eviction warning notices must include state-specific language. It also gives the tenant a set amount of time to cure the violation and avoid eviction; the exact number of days varies by state. Not sending the right notice at the right time only adds time and aggravation to this already stressful process.
It is these tiny little details that can often make or break an eviction case. Most district judges will hold you accountable to the letter of these minutiae.
Here are a few examples of how state laws vary:
North Carolina: When a North Carolina tenant is behind on the rent, the landlord must give them a written notice demanding payment within ten days. If the tenant fails to pay, the landlord must then go to the local courthouse and file a Complaint in Summary Ejectment (more on that in Step 2: Filing).
Illinois: Illinois requires a five-day notice of eviction for nonpayment of rent. Other wrong-doings and lease breaches require a different form, a ten-day notice. Then there are the major cities! Chicago imposes its own set of processes for eviction. Be sure that you always check your local notice requirements as well!
How Do You Serve the Eviction Notice?
Again, without sounding like a broken record, different states (and some municipalities) have different protocols. Below find the various ways to deliver that notice to the offending tenant.
- First-class and/or certified mail. Some states allow regular mail, while others require certified mail. I always send one certified, return receipt required, even when not required. Having that little green signed card in court can go a long way.
- Post. This is when you tape the notice to an obvious place such as the front door. Tip: Mail it as well!
- Hand-deliver. Each state has their own ways to do this. With some, you can just hand it to whomever answers the door and run! And other states require a signature (tip: it’s always better to get it signed). There are rules as to who may receive the notice and their minimum age; delivering it to a toddler is never allowed.
- Process server. Few states require this, but it has its advantages. First, it’s hard proof that the eviction notice was delivered. It’s also less confrontational and dangerous than hand delivery by you, as irate tenants can be unpredictable. Still, it’s expensive, and an extra step to have to take.
Bear in mind that some states require a combination of these service options before filing in court for eviction.
Eviction Step 2: File in Court
How many days did your state require in the eviction warning notice?
That’s how long you must wait before filing in court.
For instance, in Iowa, once your notice period expires, you go to your county court and file an Iowa Forcible Entry and Detainer or F.E.D. Alabama landlords also file the form in the County courthouse; it’s referred to as the Statement of Claim Eviction, Unlawful Detainer. In Michigan and Pennsylvania, these forms are filed at the district court level and termed Summons and Complaint for Eviction.
As each of them has different names, they also have distinctive information required as well as the methods to file them. Some municipalities have joined this millennium and allow online filing for the eviction process. Others remain stubbornly low tech, and require an in-person visit to the courthouse with paperwork and paper check in hand.
The nuances do not end there. Each court has a decree on what constitutes “proper waiting time”. That five-day grace period in your proper notice may mean “any” five days in a row in one state, and five business days in another state and a whole different counting interval somewhere else.
Rule of thumb: Contact the clerk of court where your property is located. Do this before you ever need it. Find out what constitutes a day in a notice period? How can a form be filed; in person or online? What is the service of notice requirement?
Eviction Step 3: The Hearing
The document is filed, your tenant receives notice from the court that they must appear for a hearing. Most states will assign a court date for all parties to appear and duke it out, presenting evidence and making a case before a judge.
However, some states such as Nevada require the tenant to contest the complaint first (usually via mail). If they do so within the time window, a court date is scheduled for all parties to appear. However, if the tenant fails to answer in the time allotted, the eviction order is automatically granted. There are a few states that have similar procedures.
“What do I bring to the eviction hearing?”
The rental agreement, if you have one, is important to bring along. Any notices, copies of checks, pictures, unpaid utility bills and your rental ledger should be in your case file. If you have made any phone calls, make sure you have the specific dates and times.
TIP: Always bring an extra copy of the lease agreement with you. Often the Judge does not have it. Make notes as to which section of the lease was violated. The more organized and the easier it is for the Judge to find the necessary information, the better it is for you.
“Do I need an attorney?”
You can’t expect us to answer that! While we would never tell anyone not to hire an attorney, our experience has been that landlords don’t need one for the eviction process. But if there is confusion, complications, worries, snags or you have never been in a court before; perhaps it is worth the money to hire an attorney. However, a cut-and-dry non-payment case is usually straightforward. And often the tenant doesn’t bother to show up.
What if your tenant appeals? In some courts, in order for the tenant to do this, a specific portion or allotment of the rent “allegedly” owed must be paid into the court along with paperwork to initiate the appeal. In other courts, the tenant must simply pay rent, current. The appeal process can be lengthy and complicated. Therefore, at this point unless you have been there, done that; time to call your lawyer.
Unfortunately, there exist professional tenants that can literally drown a landlord in litigation for months, or worse, years. Tenants in the midst of bankruptcy could hold you stagnant as well. Without sounding repetitive, get good, professional, legal counsel if this happens!
Eviction Step 4: Lockout
Each state has their own procedure for formal eviction lockouts as well, surprise!
Many courts offer a period of appeal. (See how long this process is getting?) In Pennsylvania, the appeal time after a judge renders his decision is ten days. This means that either party may file an appeal to a higher court at any time within the ten-day period.
And remember, each court counts days differently!
Once the judge approves the eviction court order, and any appeal period has been exhausted, the procedure for a sheriff or other law enforcement agent to perform a lockout may begin. Important note: YOU may be the one required to schedule the eviction with the sheriff’s office! Be sure to ask the court.
Some states such as Colorado have a process for Writ of Restitution. This is a form that the property owner will get from the courts, and then take to the sheriff’s office.
Once the sheriff assigns an eviction date, the landlord has to post or serve it on the tenant. Basically, it tells the tenant to get out or be locked out. That means everyone in the household must vacate and all personal items must be removed.
In some tenant-friendly states, the landlord is required to store the tenant’s abandoned property. For instance, in Nevada, the landlord not only must store the junk for 30 days but also even after the 30 days are up, must make sure and take all “reasonable” efforts to locate the owner of this abandoned stuff! And in Oregon, not only must you store the renter’s belongings, but you must also ensure that no damage is done to it.
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How to Evict a Tenant Without a Lease Contract
Sometimes you end up with tenants that you never signed a lease agreement with, such as inherited tenants, or romantic partners who moved in with your original tenant and then stuck around after your original tenant moved out.
You can still evict a tenant without a lease from your rental property, the same way you evict a squatter or a tenant with a rental agreement. You serve the same type of notice as any other eviction, wait the grace period, then initiate the legal eviction action by filing in court if they don’t move out on their own.
Use our software to download an eviction warning notice for your state, serve it on the occupant, and follow the same eviction process as usual.
Should Landlords Pursue a Judgment?
Evicted tenants often owe thousands of dollars in back rent by the time the landlord regains possession of the property. Should you just write that money off as a loss?
You can file a lawsuit in small claims court against your ex-tenants. It costs you in time, labor, and court costs (and possibly legal fees), but you do have a legal right to pursue tenants for past due rent they owe you: a default judgment.
However, even if you win the lawsuit, you don’t just get a check on the spot. You win a money judgment, which you must then collect from the renter. Which usually means hiring a collection agency, who takes a cut (typically half) of every dollar they collect for you.
If the tenant owes you a significant amount of unpaid rent or damage costs, and you feel confident that a collection agency can find both the tenant and their employer to garnish wages, it’s often worth the hassle of a small claims suit. Otherwise, just do a better job of screening tenants in the future.
Are There Any Alternatives to The Eviction Lockout Process?
If your tenant is engaging in illegal activity — and you can prove it — you may be able to expedite the eviction proceedings. It depends on your state and local laws.
Another option is “cash for keys.” Originally invented by banks, lenders came up with the idea to pay owners in foreclosure to leave. It made sense (cents?) as the foreclosure process can take upwards of a year to complete. During which time the occupants don’t typically make any repairs, and may even cause property damage.
It might stick in your craw, but sometimes it’s the cheapest and fastest way to get your hard-earned property back. (It makes you wonder though, about a legal system so cumbersome that we have to reward people for breaking their lease contract just to get our own property back…)
Consider a simple non-pay eviction case in my suburb. I can generally go from notice to lock-out (provided there are no glitches) in about a month to forty-five days. But in larger cities, such as Philadelphia or Chicago? Triple that, just to get a court hearing! Much less an actual lockout date.
So, here you are with a tenant not paying rent. In my smaller town, it costs you a minimum of two months of no rent (plus court fees) to evict. Then money to clean out the abandoned junk, repair the property, and even replace stolen appliances, ruined carpeting and the like. In some anti-landlord cities and states, landlords sometimes have to pay to store personal property abandoned by the ex-tenant.
All in all, you’re facing thousands of dollars in expenses.
Instead you can try:
“I would like to propose that you move out in two weeks and I will pay you $500. I’ll meet you to inspect the property, and if all looks good, I’ll give you the cash and we are done.”
Be sure and read your tenant and the situation before jumping to this solution. Many times, when a tenant gets a notice, they get scared and leave quietly on their own in the middle of the night or pay up. Other times, they’ll string you along and say they’ll leave voluntarily, and then… won’t.
Oz. of Prevention > Lb. of Cure
As much as we try and avoid the eviction hell, occasionally we all end up there.
You can avoid most bad tenants — and therefore most evictions — with thorough tenant screening tactics, including tenant screening reports such as credit, criminal, and eviction reports, and contacting employers and landlords. Start with a free tenant background check through our landlord software.
Even so, tenant screening isn’t foolproof. To completely ensure you don’t lose thousands of dollars to rent defaults and evictions, you can literally insure against them. Check out Steady as a great example; they’re reasonably priced and worth the peace of mind.
Go further and check the Facebook and social media pages. Contact employers, prior landlords. Walk through their current home.
You can also protect yourself by collecting a higher security deposit.
In other words, think defensively to prevent lease violations, and ensure you collect all rent on time.♦
What have your experiences been with the eviction process? What are your tips for how to evict a tenant?