The landlord's guide to the eviction process
Evictions can be a lengthy, daunting process for landlords and tenants, so it's important you're aware of the specific reasons, procedures and costs.
While the process of finding a tenant absorbs a great deal of time and attention from landlords, it doesn't end there. Landlords often follow the wrong path when making the decision to evict a tenant, leading them into hot water without realizing it. According to The NY Times, a research team found that almost 900,000 eviction records had been filed by landlords in 2016, which means 1 in 50 households had an eviction filed against them that year. For landlords that go through this process, the total eviction-related expenses, as stated by TransUnion SmartMove, tend to be a jarring $3,500 and can last anywhere between three weeks to several months. There's no doubt that evictions can be a lengthy, daunting process for both landlords and tenants alike, so it's important you're aware of the specific reasons, procedures and costs to help protect yourself and avoid heading in a downward spiral with your tenant. You should also consider talking with your lawyer before starting any eviction process to make sure you fully understand your options.
Reasons for evicting a tenant
Sometimes even the most careful landlords end up in sticky situations no matter how diligently they try to make sure they're choosing reliable tenants. breaks down the legal reasons for which landlords are allowed to start an eviction process:
- Violated lease. When your tenant signs a lease, they're agreeing to a legally binding contract that must be followed for the duration of the lease. If they intentionally violate this agreement, you have the right to initiate the first step in the eviction process. An example of this could be if someone is residing in the property without having legal rights, known as a squatter, or if there are serious illegal activities taking place on the property, such as drug-dealing.
- Late or unpaid rent payments. If you start seeing a pattern of rent payments occurring late or you stop receiving them altogether, you may have the right to begin the eviction process. It's important to collect rent online so you have an accurate inventory of all payments that were (not) made during the lease period. This also applies to any form of communication between you and your tenant about unpaid payments, as they can be used to support your case.
- Damaged property. Before evicting a tenant due to damage to the property, it's important to know what damages qualify for eviction compared to those that should simply result in loss of their security deposit. If the damages seem to have intent or carelessness behind them, such as shattered windows, ripped carpet, or defaced walls, there is usually a reasonable cause for eviction. Simple wear and tear damages, however, would likely not hold up in court. If you need to evict your tenant due to damaged property, you should take several pictures of the damages to provide as proof.
- Holding over. If your tenant continues to remain living on the property after their lease has expired without the landlord's consent, they are . According to Cornell's Legal Information Institute, you have no legal obligation to offer your tenant a lease renewal as long as the reasons don't violate Fair Housing laws, such as not renewing a lease with a tenant because of their ethnicity.
How to evict a tenant
Now that you're familiar with the reasons that may allow you to legally evict a tenant, you'll need to know what steps to take for a smooth eviction process. The precise steps vary by city and state, so talk to a lawyer and look up the specific regulations that apply to your area. In general, Forbes Real Estate Council suggests these four steps to evict your tenants:
- Step 1: Provide a Quit notice. Once you've determined a legal cause for eviction, you must provide the tenant with one of three types of quit notices, which gives them three to five days (depending on state and local laws) to either resolve the issue or move out:
- Pay Rent or Quit notice: This notice is often used by landlords when the eviction is due to unpaid rent payments. This requires the tenant to either pay the unpaid payments or move out by the given timeframe.
- Cure or Quit notice: Landlords use this notice for occasions when the lease has been violated. Once given the notice, the tenant must "cure" the issue within the given timeframe. If the lease violation deals with noise complaints, the tenant must avoid excessive noise that could lead to further complaints. If it deals with having a pet under a no-pet policy, the tenant must remove the pet from the premises within the given timeframe.
- Unconditional Quit notice: There may be unique situations where the issue is escalated to the point where the landlord omits the ability for the tenant to do the above options (pay rent or cure). While this is the harshest type of notice, you're typically allowed to give this type of notice to your tenant if there have been repeated lease violations, multiple late or unpaid rent payments, serious damages to the property, or illegal activities taking place on the property.
- According to RentCafe, each state varies in the level of extremity for which a landlord can provide specific notices. Hawaii and Rhode Island are among the 14 states that allow landlords to serve an Unconditional Quit Notice but require the cause to be under serious breaches. Some states, such as Georgia, allow the landlord to provide this notice just from receiving late rent payments. There are also states that empower landlords even more with evictions, such as New Jersey, by letting them immediately terminate a lease and file an eviction without notice if the tenant is just a few days late on rent. As a landlord, you're responsible for researching your state's laws about eviction notices.
- Step 2: File for eviction at the local court. Assuming the issue has not been resolved within the time frame of providing a quit notice, you may file a specific complaint to your local court based on the type of violation that occurred. This will result in the court issuing a hearing to you and your tenant. Throughout the time period before the court date, the tenant is often allowed to continue living on your property without paying rent.
- Step 3: Attend the court hearing. Once you're given the court date, you'll want to make sure you're prepared with proper documentation upon attending. This includes proof of the reasoning for eviction and proof of a written notice to the tenant. It's also good to provide copies of the lease, communication records, and rent payment records.
- Step 4: Regain possession of the property. Assuming the court rules in your favor because you followed the correct procedures, the court would issue a judgment for you to repossess the property, which would typically be given to a local sheriff. The sheriff would then give the tenant a notice of how long they have to remove themselves. If they don't leave the property by then, the sheriff may arrive to remove them. While some states allow the judge to order immediate evictions, the given timeframe is typically one to four weeks. During this timeframe, you likely don't have the right to remove the tenant's belongings. Only after the tenant has left permanently can you legally remove their abandoned items, change the locks, and list your property to find new, quality tenants.
Instances that could lengthen the eviction process
- Bankruptcy filed by the tenant. If your tenant files bankruptcy, that may impact whether the eviction process moves forward. In some cases, you may need to seek a stay of the bankruptcy before proceeding with the eviction process.
- Partial payment accidentally accepted. When your tenant only pays a portion of the monthly rent price, it's considered a partial payment. If you've already initiated an eviction process, it's highly recommended that you do not accept partial payments from the tenant you're trying to evict. This is because some states will force you to start the eviction process all over again — even if you've already filed it with the court.
What not to do
In addition to not accepting partial payments from your tenant, throwing their belongings out, or locking them out of the property while you're in the process of evicting them, there are several otherwhile in the process of evicting your tenant:
- Threatening the tenant. While it may seem obvious, it's important to be professional and calm when interacting with a tenant you're wanting to evict. Instead of initially threatening them with an eviction, give them a formal notice well enough in advance so that the process goes smoothly and you're not forced to start it over.
- Turn off utilities. Even if you're in the process of evicting a tenant, you're still required to make sure your property is habitable until the tenant has been permanently evicted. Turning off utilities while they're still residing on the property would make it uninhabitable and can be used against you in court — reducing your chances of winning the case.
When to hire a lawyer
Eviction is ultmately a legal process, and you should always consider talking with a lawyer. Hiring a lawyer may cost more, but it certainly presents a degree of comfort for landlords that choose to evict a tenant. Although evictions typically take a shorter amount of time than other legal issues, despite the fact that many landlords have successfully evicted tenants without the help of a lawyer, it is recommended to hire one if:
- It's your first time evicting a tenant.
- Your tenant hired a lawyer and is pushing back.
- You're firing an employee who's a tenant.
- Your tenant has filed for bankruptcy.
- You have to follow the housing program or rent control requirements.
Regardless of whether you plan on hiring a lawyer for your eviction or not, it's extremely important for you to familiarize yourself with your local landlord-tenant laws so that you're well-informed throughout the eviction process.
If your tenant abandons the property
To confidently claim that your tenant has abandoned the rental property, it must first be empty for a given period of time, varying by state. There are also several factors that may indicate your tenant has abandoned the property:
- Your tenant is behind on rent payments.
- Utilities are shut off.
- Your tenant's belongings are missing from the property.
- Neighbors noticed a moving truck or were notified by your tenant.
- A change of address was submitted to the post office.
- Emergency contacts were notified.
Once you've established the likelihood of property abandonment, it's important to read local laws on what must be done with any of the tenant's remaining belongings. While many landlords make the mistake of immediately tossing all of the belongings, they're often required to safely store it for a given period of time before disposing or donating it.
The highest risk factor about going through an eviction process, according to Forbes Real Estate Council, is the uncertainty of the timeline from filing a complaint to completely resolving the issue. Because time and money are important factors, you might consider taking a "cash for keys" approach before jumping into an eviction. According to FitSmallBusiness, this method simply proposes a solution of accepting a cash payment from the tenant in exchange for the keys to the property and allowing them to move out without a formal eviction process. If your tenants agree to this, you should draw up a terminating lease document and have them sign it for your records. This alternative is often used because it saves time and money, avoids hostility between landlords and tenants, and reduces stress significantly
To make sure you never have to go through a daunting eviction process again, there are steps that can be taken to give yourself a security blanket as you find new tenants moving forward:
- Screen tenants before signing a lease with them in order to make sure they haven't had prior evictions and have a history of making on-time payments.
- Increase the security deposit for a tenant you might not be sure about.
- Require your tenant to either meet a minimum credit score or find a co-signer.
- Require your tenants to have renters insurance.
If you believe you're in a situation where you may need to evict a tenant, be sure to follow the above steps. If you've recently evicted your tenant and have a vacant property, you'll need to list your property in order to minimize the duration of your property's vacancy
Managing your rental doesn't have to be as daunting and time-consuming as the process of evicting a tenant.