Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many landlords are temporarily prohibited from evicting residential and commercial tenants. If you’re a landlord who was in the eviction process before the CARES Act was signed into law on March 27, 2020, you may still be able to proceed with your eviction. We’ve included answers to some frequently asked questions (FAQs) about the COVID-19 moratorium and evictions below.
While we encourage you to try to work out a plan with your tenants to help them through this challenging time, you may be faced with filing an eviction when the rent moratorium is lifted, or if tenants are willfully disrupting the quiet enjoyment of other tenants, damaging your property, or violating the lease beyond nonpayment of rent. Knowing how to evict a tenant starts with understanding your state’s landlord-tenant laws.
1. Learn your State Landlord-Tenant Laws
Landlord-tenant laws vary by state. Your state’s eviction laws will dictate what you can legally do to evict a tenant. Never try to evict someone without taking legal action. In most states, a do-it-yourself (DIY) eviction—changing locks, putting tenants’ belongings on the street, threatening or coercing—is illegal. During the COVID-19 pandemic, there are both federal and state laws impacting your ability to evict.
Where to Find Landlord-Tenant Laws
Work with a real estate attorney in the state where your rental property is located. If you decide to file an eviction without hiring a lawyer, your state landlord-tenant laws can usually be found on your state’s “.gov” website under landlord-tenant laws or housing laws, or you can use our state-by-state interactive map.
For COVID-19 related eviction laws, the National Housing Law Project explains which type of housing is covered under federal law. Don’t assume your property is exempt if you don’t fall within one of the categories. Where the federal eviction moratorium laws end, state laws fill in the gaps, so you’ll need to check with your state.
2. Refer to the Terms of Your Lease
If your tenant is in a signed month-to-month tenancy at will agreement, in most states, you can evict quickly as long as you give the tenant a written 30-day notice to vacate. The 30-day notice typically has to be served at least 30 days prior to the first day of the following month. For example, if you give a 30-day notice on April 30, your tenant has until May 30 to vacate the rental. If you give the tenant the 30-day notice on May 15, the tenant has until June 30. In some states, you don’t need to give a reason to evict on a 30-day notice to quit.
Nonpayment of rent is treated differently from other lease violations. For nonpayment of rent, in some states, you can serve a notice to quit that stipulates they need to leave within a few days to two weeks. If they’re in a long-term lease, they will have had to violate the lease terms for you to issue a notice to quit.
For tenants in a long-term lease who violate the lease terms, you can issue a 30-day notice and will need to go to court. If they stopped paying rent, you would issue the notice to quit based on the length of time the state laws allow for evicting a tenant for nonpayment of rent, and you’d need to go to court.
Some lease violations to include in your rental agreements are:
- Nonpayment of rent
- Illegal activity
- Disturbing other tenants and neighbors
- Subletting, unless your lease allows it
- Moving other adults into the unit who are not on the lease
- Unapproved pets
- Property damage
Uphold Landlord Duties Before Tenant Eviction
The lease outlines both the tenant’s and the landlord’s duties, so you want to make sure you’re not violating the terms of the lease by not keeping the unit safe, in good repair, and free of pests. In most states, there is an implied warranty of habitability. The warranty of habitability states that a landlord must provide adequate heat, hot water, and be free of infestations.
3. Issue an Eviction Notice
An eviction notice is a written request from a landlord to their tenant to vacate the rental property. Some states require the notice to be served by a sheriff or constable. In other states, the notice is served by certified mail. Should you send the letter by certified mail, request a return receipt from the postal service. A return receipt requires a signature, so you’ll know someone in the household got the notice. Rocket Lawyer offers a free eviction notice template you can use to start the eviction process.
An eviction notice doesn’t mean a tenant is automatically evicted. All eviction notices give the tenant a set amount of time to “cure”—either pay the past due rent, stop the lease violation, or face a formal eviction lawsuit in housing court.
Once the time period on the eviction notice expires (from three to 30 days, depending on the state and the type of eviction notice), you’ll be able to file a formal eviction with housing court. Some states give a tenant up to 10 days to move after you win the eviction case. If the tenant refuses to leave, you may be required to have them removed by a sheriff and have their belongings put in storage, sometimes at your expense.
Types of Eviction Notices
There are three types of eviction notices. The first two give the tenant options to cure the situation and stay in the rental unit. The third, called a notice to quit, doesn’t give them an option to stay.
Notice to Pay Rent or Quit
If your tenant stopped paying rent, a notice to pay rent or quit might be enough to get them to start paying rent again or leave on their own before having to go to court. The notice gives the tenant the option to pay the past due rent owed to avoid further eviction proceedings. If your tenant pays, you may be able to skip the eviction process entirely. In some states, tenants only get this option once. If their rent is late in the future, you can evict for nonpayment, even if they pay the past due rent.
The Notice to Cure or Quit
If your tenant is continually disturbing neighbors, damaging your property, or conducting illegal activity on the premises, you can give a notice to comply or vacate the unit. A notice to cure or quit is often given to tenants who have violated their lease terms in some way. It gives tenants the options of “curing” (stopping) the objectionable behavior that violates their lease terms or risk further eviction proceedings.
Notice to Quit
A notice to quit is an eviction notice that does not give the tenant any options to remedy the situation. It gives them a set amount of time to move out of the rental unit before the landlord begins eviction proceedings. While the time between sending a notice to quit and starting eviction proceedings differs by state, from seven to 30 days, you always need to wait a set period of time after sending the notice to quit before you can get a court date for the eviction.
4. Begin Eviction Proceedings
Since it’s illegal for landlords to take matters into their own hands and change the locks, shut off utilities, or physically remove a nonpaying tenant’s property, your only recourse to evict is through the courts. Contact your attorney or go to the local housing court to file your eviction.
Your attorney will handle all the needed paperwork and see the process through from beginning to end, defending you in court should the eviction go to trial. If you represent yourself, having witnesses, written proof of the violations, and a copy of a lease signed by you and the tenant is important. Landlords who don’t use leases or rental agreements, or don’t have any evidence the tenant violates the lease, often fail to win their eviction cases.
Documents to bring to housing court include:
- The signed lease or tenancy at will agreement
- Your renter’s license, if your city or state requires it
- Copy of the served eviction notice with proof of service like a signed return receipt or sheriff’s copy
- Proof of the violation (photos of damage, emails, text messages, police reports, voicemails)
- A photo ID
With the COVID-19 eviction and rent moratoriums, you can’t serve the tenant or file the eviction until after the moratorium is lifted, but it’s still a good idea to prepare. We hope you never need these documents, but it’s always better to be prepared.
Evicting a Tenant in Court
Once you file the eviction, you’ll be given a court date for your case to be heard. A court date usually is granted within 30 to 45 days from the time the eviction paperwork is filed. However, if there’s a backlog or holiday, it can take longer. This is why it is critical, outside of the coronavirus eviction moratorium, for landlords to act swiftly for lease violations and nonpayment of rent.
How the Court Evicts Tenants
If you don’t have an attorney, you might want to sit in on a few eviction proceedings in the court to see how the process works. You can expect to be in court all day unless your case is heard early. You don’t get to choose where your case is on the docket, so plan accordingly. Also, arrive early.
The judge will either find in the tenant’s favor, in your favor, or you may go to mediation to work out a resolution. If the court finds in the tenant’s favor and they owe past rent, the judge will issue an order that gives the tenant time to pay the past due rent or face a new eviction. If they find in your favor, the judge will order the tenant to vacate your rental unit, generally within a week or two.
5. Executing an Eviction
If the judge rules in your favor and the tenant doesn’t leave voluntarily within seven to 10 days, you’ll need the sheriff’s office to serve a notice to vacate. This notice typically gives them 48 to 72 hours to leave, or they will be removed physically. The sheriff will not move their belongings but will make sure the tenant leaves. Once the tenant has vacated, you can change the locks and reclaim your property.
The process varies by state, but if the tenant doesn’t remove their belongings, you may have to store them, sometimes at your expense. This, like so many other landlord-tenant laws, are state-specific, so we recommend that you hire an attorney who knows the landlord-tenant laws in your state.
How to Protect Yourself from Bad Tenants in the Future
Because this process can cost you a lot of time, money, and stress, you should take precautions to mitigate the risks of bad tenants in the future. While you can never guarantee you won’t have to evict a tenant, there are some things you can do to help prevent bad future tenants, which all start with screening your tenants.
To protect yourself from bad tenants in the future, you may want to outsource tenant background screening. Tenant screening services like, MyRental and RentPrep give you comprehensive reports, including criminal activity, eviction and housing history, credit history, and employment verification.
An Alternative to the Eviction Process: Cash for Keys
Some landlords avoid the eviction process by trading “cash for keys.” Instead of going through the process of eviction, the tenant is given a cash payment in exchange for returning the keys and moving out of the unit. There are pros and cons to trading cash for keys.
- Tenants leave voluntarily
- It may cost you less than going through an eviction process
- Tenants can spare their credit being damaged
- You can require the unit be cleaned and repaired and free of all tenants belongings
- You can take possession of the unit faster than an eviction, and get it rented to a qualified tenant
- You could be creating “professional tenants” who move from one landlord to the next, violating the lease, and expecting to be rewarded
- You may have ended up with this bad tenant because someone else did a trade of cash for keys, and there are no court records of their bad behavior
- They could sabotage or damage the unit
If they agree to trading cash for keys, have them sign and date the document terminating the lease that includes the stipulations of the cash for keys arrangement. Include in the language that they cannot take action against you after they have moved. Your attorney can show you how to word this. Make sure they’ve vacated and inspect the unit before handing over cash and having them sign the document.
COVID-19 Eviction Moratorium FAQs
My tenant stopped paying rent. How long do I have to wait before I can evict during the COVID-19 pandemic?
The federal CARES Act prohibits evictions in covered properties to landlords with government-backed mortgages. Landlords who meet the federal guidelines cannot file a court action for eviction or charge late fees for a period of 120 days beginning March 27, 2020. This could change if the pandemic continues and the government extends the moratorium.
After the 120-day period, landlords will need to issue a 30-day eviction notice, so this means landlords cannot move to eviction for six months. It will take additional time to file, secure a court date, and go to court. If your property doesn’t fall under the federal CARES Act guidelines, you can search this state-by-state eviction moratorium database provided by the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC).
As a landlord, am I eligible for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) or any other sources of relief funding?
The United States Small Business Administration considers owning and managing investment property as a passive business, so landlords are not eligible for the PPP. However, you may be eligible for the Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL). EIDL loans may be up to $2 million secured and up to $25,000 unsecured if you meet the SBA’s criteria. As of April 27, the government isn’t accepting new EIDL applications. It’s unclear if there will be a future round of EIDL funding. You also may be eligible for a foreclosure moratorium if you’re unable to pay your mortgage.
My tenant stopped paying their utility bills along with the rent. I’m worried this will damage my property. Can utilities be turned off during the coronavirus pandemic?
Many states have enacted moratoriums on utility shutoffs for nonpayment during the novel coronavirus pandemic. The National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners provides a State Response Tracker and a Map of Disconnection Moratoria that provides information on which states are under an order and which are voluntarily suspending shutoffs.
I don’t have a federally backed mortgage and cannot make payments because my tenants stopped paying rent. What can I do?
If you’re unable to pay your mortgage due to the COVID-19 pandemic, you should contact your loan servicer right away to discuss options. Although the federal CARES Act does not cover your loan, federal agencies are encouraging lenders to work with their borrowers who cannot pay their mortgage due to COVID-19. Your state may also have a foreclosure moratorium in place for loans not backed by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac.
The chances of having to evict a tenant at some point in your career as a landlord are high. The key is to make sure you follow the right steps and don’t put yourself in a legal bind. You should know your state’s landlord-tenant laws and understand your lease so that you file a valid and legal eviction.