The Big Picture On The Eviction Process:

    • Despite running a tight ship, landlords will eventually have to deal with eviction. Documentation is crucial when enacting the eviction process, as it helps the landlord’s case in the long run. 
    • Landlords should always stay on top of state and local laws regarding eviction, including notice serving times and other timelines. This ensures that they won’t stumble face-first into a lawsuit. 
    • There are several ways to mitigate your losses from non-paying evicted tenants, like garnishments, hiring debt collectors, taking them to small claims court, and the good ol’ fashioned security deposit. 
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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 been lifted, many rent courts remain backlogged. 

Understand how to evict a tenant before starting the eviction process so you don’t waffle when tenants miss rent payments or 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 give verbal warning after verbal 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!
    • Keep copies of all payments in addition to your ledger. If paid by cash, provide a receipt and get a signature; hold on to all paid check copies, money orders, and automatic deposits to your account.
    • If neighbors call the police or other authorities, get a copy of the report. Make sure you write down the date, time, and officer’s name. Then, create your incident report.
    • Keep hard copies in a file and 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 your hard copies or digital files.
    • Take pictures! Is trash strewn all over the rental unit’s lawn? Take photos. Did the tenant leave 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 of each condition to the renter.

 

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 is 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 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.

 

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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.

    1. 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.
    2. Post. This is when you tape the notice to an obvious place such as the front door. Tip: Mail it as well!
    3. 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.
    4. 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 the 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 hearing judgeEviction Step 3: The Hearing

After the document is filed, your tenant receives notice from the court that they must appear for a hearing. Most states 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. A few states have similar procedures.

“What do I bring to the eviction hearing?

It is important to bring along the rental agreement if you have one. 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 you are and the easier it is for the Judge to find the necessary information, the better 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 to the court along with paperwork to initiate the appeal. In other courts, the tenant must simply pay rent, which is current. The appeal process can be lengthy and complicated. Therefore, at this point, unless you have been there and done that, it is time to call your lawyer.

Unfortunately, professional tenants can drown a landlord in litigation for months or 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 its procedure for formal eviction lockouts. Surprise!

Many courts offer a period of appeal. (See how long this process is taking?) 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 within ten days.

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 required to schedule the eviction with the sheriff’s office! Be sure to ask the court.

Almost there…

Some states, such as Colorado, have a process for a Writ of Restitution. This is a form that the property owner gets from the courts and then takes to the sheriff’s office.

Once the sheriff assigns an eviction date, the landlord has to post or serve it on the tenant. 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 must 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! 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 usual eviction process. 

 

Should Landlords Pursue a Judgment?

Evicted tenants often owe thousands of dollars in back rent when the landlord regains possession of the property.

Should you just write that money off as a loss? It depends. 

You can file a lawsuit in small claims court against your ex-tenants. It will cost you time, labor, and court costs (and possibly legal fees), but you 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. This usually means hiring a collection agency that takes a cut (typically half) of every dollar it collects for you. 

Suppose 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. In that case, it’s often worth the hassle of a small claims suit. Otherwise, just do a better job of screening tenants in the future. 

 

eviction process sheriffAre There Any Alternatives to The Eviction Lockout Process?

If you can prove that your tenant is engaging in illegal activity, you may be able to expedite the eviction proceedings. However, this depends on your state and local laws. 

Another option is “cash for keys.” Originally invented by banks, lenders came up with the idea of paying owners in foreclosure to leave. It made sense (cents?), as the foreclosure process can take upwards of a year to complete. During this 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 regain your hard-earned property. (It makes you wonder, though, about a legal system so cumbersome that we have to reward people for breaking their lease contract to get our own property back…)

Consider a simple non-pay eviction case in my suburb. I can generally go from notice to lockout (provided there are no glitches) in about a month to forty-five days. But in larger cities, such as Philadelphia or Chicago, it’s triple that just to get a court hearing, much less an actual lockout date.

How About Smaller Towns?

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 is used to clean out the abandoned junk, repair the property, and even replace stolen appliances, ruined carpeting, etc.

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.”

Read your tenant and the situation before jumping to this solution.

When tenants get a notice, they often get scared and leave quietly alone 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.

What If My Ex-Tenant Left Their Pet Behind?

Look, I get it. Having pets is a very subjective thing. However, one would think that, having elected to own a pet and raise it in their home, some tenants would bring their pets with them when they leave.

Unfortunately, that’s not always the case. Some people just leave their pets behind. Now, you, the landlord, handle the situation on top of a non-paying tenant. So, what do you do?

    • Check on the pet: Is it weak and dehydrated? Does it look sick? Do what you can in both cases (while practicing a bucketload of caution and ideally keeping your distance). If the animal is aggressive or looks like it will attack out of fear, leave it be for now, or put the water and food somewhere it can access after you leave.
    • Attempt to contact your tenant: Your next step should be to contact your tenant however you can. I mean, I can’t imagine leaving a pet after eviction, but some state laws require you to try to call or message them (and document your attempts.)
    • Contact your local animal control or shelter: While some landlords might elect to keep the pet (and some states mandate that the landlord is now the owner of the pet), it would be better to contact your local animal control and let them handle it. Document the pet’s state when they take it and supply whatever information the local authorities ask about the previous tenant. They might have a case on their hands if the pet is showing signs of maltreatment.

 

How To Recover Some Of Your Losses On Evicted Tenants

So, your tenant’s well and gone, and that’s a portion of your income gone with them.

I’ve mentioned filing for small claims earlier, but there are several other ways you can mitigate the losses of an evicted tenant, such as: 

Recovery Option Description Considerations
Security Deposit Use the tenant’s security deposit to cover unpaid rent and damages. Only covers amounts up to the deposit; it may not suffice for all debts.
Small Claims Court Sue the tenant in small claims court for unpaid rent exceeding the security deposit. Suitable for recovery of smaller amounts; varies by state. Legal fees may apply.
Collection Agencies Engage a collection agency to pursue the debt on behalf of the landlord. Agencies charge fees or take a percentage of the collected debt.
Wage Garnishment If a court judgment is obtained, a portion of the tenant’s wages can be legally directed to the landlord. It requires a court judgment and is subject to state laws on maximum garnishable amount.
Tax Refund Garnishment Intercept a tenant’s tax refund to cover the unpaid debts, often necessitating a court judgment. Involves navigating specific state and federal regulations.
Credit Reporting Report the debt to credit bureaus, potentially affecting the tenant’s credit score and encouraging debt settlement. This may motivate tenants to settle their debt to avoid credit score damage.

Oz. of Prevention > Lb. of Cure

As much as we try to avoid the eviction hell, we occasionally 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 ensure you don’t lose thousands of dollars to rent defaults and evictions, you can 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 and 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?

 

 

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