Knowing how to evict a tenant starts with understanding the law and knowing when and how to send the right eviction notice. You can evict your tenant yourself or you can hire legal assistance, but that will cost $2,500 – $5,000. The most important part is making sure you complete the entire process legally.
The five steps to evict a tenant are:
1. Learn Your State Landlord-Tenant Laws
Landlord-tenant laws vary by state. You need to know your state laws because that will dictate what you can legally do when evicting a tenant. These laws will help you plan out how the eviction process should proceed. Beware, however, that you should never try to evict someone without involving the courts, because a DIY eviction is not a legal option.
The laws vary widely by state and even sometimes by local municipality. For example, some states, counties, and big cities like New York City are almost comically tenant-friendly. Tenants in New York City, especially those who live in rent-stabilized units, can and do often get away with not paying rent for six months or more before an actual eviction takes place.
If you’re lucky enough to own a rental property in Texas, Indiana, Colorado, Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi, Arizona, or Florida, on the other hand, you will have a much easier time evicting your tenant because they’re considered landlord-friendly states and the court proceedings move faster, sometimes only taking a month to complete.
Where to Find Landlord-Tenant Laws
We recommend working with a real estate attorney in your state, but if you decide to file an eviction without one, you need to know where to find your state-specific landlord-tenant laws. This information can usually be found on your state’s “.gov” website under landlord-tenant laws or housing laws.
To learn more about the landlord-tenant laws in your state, check out our guide on landlord-tenant laws, including an interactive map of all 50 states. This in-depth article shows you where to find landlord-tenant laws in your state so you have a resource for what’s legal and what’s not during an eviction. The last thing you want to do is to break a law that could cost you money or your right to evict a tenant. You want to know how to evict a tenant the right way.
2. Read & Understand Your Lease Before Tenant Eviction
It’s important to understand your lease because this will be where you find a legal and valid reason for evicting your tenant. It’s also important to understand your tenant’s personality so you know how best to proceed with the eviction based on what you know about them. You want to be tactful and professional throughout the process.
Some tenants may be willing to just leave to avoid the headaches of dealing with an eviction, but others will be more difficult to evict, often fighting until the bitter end. I’ve known tenants who have spent tens of thousands of dollars fighting their landlords in court over extremely petty disputes like plumbing issues or construction noise. Other tenants, who have professional jobs or great credit, may just leave to avoid a judgment against them.
Evicting a Tenant Based on Your Lease
If your tenant is on a month-to-month lease agreement, then you’re in luck because in most states, this means that you can evict your tenant quickly and easily as long as you give them 30 days’ notice to vacate. If you made this clear in your lease agreement or already pointed out the relevant landlord-tenant law to your tenants, then you should be able to get them out with a simple eviction notice. In some states, you don’t even really need a reason to evict them.
If they’re in the middle of a one-year lease, then things get a bit more complicated. There is a possibility that you will be able to get them to leave with a simple notice, but chances are you may have to go through housing court.
In tenant-friendly states like New York, this can often mean a lengthy and expensive multi-month ordeal. In landlord-friendly states like Colorado, you can evict tenants in as little as 72 hours. In every case though, evicting tenants on a month-to-month rental agreement is much easier than evicting tenants who are in the middle of a lease.
You know what type of lease is in place, now you need to know if the tenant is violating any of the terms of the lease. For example, they may have four people living in the apartment and the lease only allows for two occupants. If the tenant is violating terms of the lease, it’s grounds for an eviction.
Some common types of lease violations include:
- Rent Violations: Not paying rent or paying partial rent
- Breaking the Law: If the tenant breaks the law, it violates the lease in all states
- Violating Building or HOA Rules: These are generally outlined as an attachment or addendum to the lease
- Subletting: Subletting without the landlord’s permission violates the terms of the lease
- Extra Occupancy: Only the listed occupants may live in the property, and your lease should spell out how long other adults can stay on the premises (typically around seven days at a time)
- Unapproved Pets: A tenant may not keep pets, except service animals, without the landlord’s consent
- Damaging the Property: Intentional damage, not normal wear and tear, violates the lease
Uphold Landlord Duties Before Tenant Eviction
The lease outlines both the tenant’s duties and the landlord’s duties, so you want to make sure you’re upholding your responsibilities and not violating the terms of the lease. For example, in tenant-friendly states like New York or New Jersey, tenants are allowed to withhold rent if you’re not upholding your responsibilities as a landlord. Every lease in New York State has what is known as a warranty of habitability.
The warranty of habitability states that a landlord must keep the rental unit free from infestations, and have adequate heat, hot water or otherwise maintain the unit in a “habitable” condition. If your tenant stops paying rent and you are not keeping the unit in a habitable condition, then your chances of evicting a tenant on a lease are very remote.
“In Alabama, the landlord must prove that the tenant breached the lease in order to file an eviction. It’s a good idea for landlords to document any issues with the tenant in writing by sending emails, notices, or letters to the tenant. When a landlord starts an eviction, they should document the condition of the real property. If there is damage to the property, then photographs and videos are a good way to show the present condition of the premises. Also, the landlord should maintain any of the tenant’s correspondence for use in the eviction process.” — Mac Martinson, Attorney, M&B
There’s always the risk that the tenant may damage your property and that’s why having a rental insurance policy is so important. To learn more about insurance for landlords and how to get it, check out our article on landlord insurance.
3. Send the Tenant an Eviction Notice
Once you’re familiar with your state laws and understand the violation in your lease that the tenant committed, the next step is to send your tenant an eviction notice. An eviction notice is a written request from a landlord to their tenant to get them to vacate their rental property. In most states, it needs to be mailed via certified mail directly to the tenant.
Contrary to popular belief, an eviction notice does not automatically mean a tenant will be evicted, nor is it always a legal document from a court or sheriff. All eviction notices give the tenant a set amount of time to either pay the rent they owe, stop their behavior that violates the lease, or face a formal eviction lawsuit in 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 will then be able to bring a formal eviction lawsuit in court. An eviction notice is just a step in the eviction process and only a court order can actually evict a tenant who does not agree to move out.
“The problem for most landlords is waiting too long before serving a three-day notice, which then delays the ability to initiate an eviction. It’s best to serve this notice as soon as rent is overdue beyond any grace period in the lease. Often, getting this notice motivates the tenant to pay the overdue rent and the issue is resolved before it had to go any further.” — Flavia Berys, Attorney, Founder, landlordprep.com
Types of Eviction Notices
Generally speaking, there are three types of eviction notices that a landlord can send to tenants. The first two give the tenant options to remedy the situation and stay in the rental unit, and threaten to escalate the eviction process if they don’t. The third, called a notice to quit, does not give them an option to stay in the unit.
Notice to Pay Rent or Quit
Often the first step in the eviction process, a notice to pay rent or quit, is an eviction notice that you send to a tenant who has not paid rent, usually for more than a month or two. This notice gives the tenant the option to pay the rent owed in order to avoid further eviction proceedings. If your tenant agrees to pay their back rent, then you may be able to skip the eviction process entirely.
If your tenant is not paying rent, a notice to pay rent or quit might be enough to get them to start paying rent again. This is an ideal first step before involving the courts, which could start costing you time and money.
Download our free pay rent or quit eviction notice.
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The Notice to Cure or Quit
Also known as a notice to comply or vacate, or a notice to perform covenant or quit, 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 is in violation of their lease terms or risk further eviction proceedings.
This can be used if your tenant is continually having disruptive parties, damaging your property, or conducting illegal activity on the premises. This is a very helpful notice if you’ve had other tenants complaining about the activity of a single individual who is violating the terms of your lease.
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 or the landlord will begin 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 to begin eviction proceedings.
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How to Send or Serve Tenants an Eviction Notice
Since a tenant can very easily argue in court that you never gave them adequate notice to begin eviction proceedings, you’re going to want to be able to document sending it because you’ll have to show proof in court. The best way to do this is to send them the notice via certified mail, and for good measure, also attach the eviction notice to their door and take a photograph of it.
How to send an eviction notice in three steps:
- First, look at your lease and send it during the allocated period, for example after the tenant is more than three days late with the rent.
- Type up the eviction notice and include the property address, landlord and tenant information, how much rent is past due and when it was due.
- Print four copies of the eviction notice so you can post one on the property, mail one using certified mail, keep one for your records and have one to give to the court.
It’s important to note that different states have different rules for serving eviction notices to tenants. Check your local laws or consult with an attorney before serving your tenant.
“One minor slip-up, such as using the word ‘or’ instead of ‘and’ in a written notice, can lead to the entire eviction being thrown out and the landlord needing to start over from scratch. Understanding what the court is going to ask of you the day of the hearing is crucial. If you can go in there with a game plan on how to answer the questions you’re asked and present the evidence you have, your chances of success improve greatly.” — Trent Zachmann, Chief Operating Officer, Renters Warehouse
4. Begin Eviction Proceedings in Court
Since it’s illegal in all states for landlords to take matters into their own hands and change the locks, shut off utilities, or physically remove a non-paying tenant’s property, your only recourse to evict anyone is through the courts. In order to get the ball rolling, contact your local courthouse to file your eviction lawsuit, known as an “unlawful detainer,” or hire a real estate attorney to handle the entire eviction.
An attorney may charge $2,500 – $5,000+ depending on if the eviction goes to trial. If you file the eviction yourself, the fees may add up to about $1,000, which doesn’t include paying yourself for your time, the lost rent from a non-paying tenant, or the costs to repair the damage they may cause to your property.
In order to find out where you need to go and what paperwork you need, check your state’s landlord-tenant law website, or call your county clerk’s office. They will tell you where to go to file the eviction, which will help you know how to evict the tenant legally.
“Whatever you do and whatever frustrations you’re facing, do not harass or try to intimidate a problematic tenant. For example, avoid visits to the property without giving at least 24-hour notice and refrain from excessive phone calls, emails or texts to your tenant. They could take legal action against you for retaliation or wrongful eviction, which could result in much more of a financial burden for a landlord than unpaid rent or property damage.” — Ted Bond, Attorney, The Law Offices of Thaddeus M. Bond Jr & Assoc, P.C
Gather Eviction Documents to Prepare for Court
Be prepared to gather together everything you may need to provide the court to prove your eviction case. That will be a copy of the eviction notice, copies of texts and emails, the tenant’s lease, and anything else that might help prove your case. You may not need everything to file the lawsuit, but you’ll need it in time for your court date.
Documents to have on hand for eviction court proceedings include:
- The lease
- Your renter’s license, if your city or state requires it
- Copy of the served eviction notice
- Receipt from post office showing you used certified mail to send the eviction notice
- Proof of the violation
After you find out where to file the eviction, you will present the documents you gathered to the court and actually file the eviction. There’s an initial filing fee of about $200 – $400, but it does depend on the state you’re filing in.
Evicting a Tenant in Court
Once you file your lawsuit with the court, you will then be given a court date for your case to be heard. Make sure you bring all your documentation with you to court, printed out and organized just like you brought with you to file the eviction. A court date is usually granted for 30 – 45 days from the time the eviction paperwork is filed. However, if there’s a backlog or a holiday is coming up, it may take longer.
Here’s a quick list of the type of documentation you should bring with you to court:
- Printouts of an email correspondence with the tenant
- Printouts of text message correspondence
- The tenant’s original lease
- Photographs of damages to the unit, if any
- Recordings of your phone conversations with the tenant (if you live in a one-party consent state)
- Bank statements highlighting the tenant’s rent payments (to help prove late payments or non-payment)
- Copy of the deed to the rental property
- Police reports detailing any illegal activities on the property
You may never need these documents, but when it comes to legal matters, it’s always better to be prepared.
Consider Bringing Witnesses to Eviction Court
You should also think about bringing witnesses to court with you who can corroborate behavior that violates the lease or the law. For example, a neighbor who saw the tenant damaging your property may be one of your witnesses. Many neighbors who complain about a tenant will likely be more than happy to help in the process.
Potential witnesses might include:
- Another tenant in the building who can corroborate illegal or nuisance behavior
- A superintendent or property manager who can corroborate attempts to speak with the tenant
- A contractor or repair person who can corroborate damages to the unit and their repair costs
- A police officer who showed up at the property for any violation of law that occurred
Understand How the Court Evicts Tenants Beforehand
If you don’t have access to an attorney, you might want to sit in on a few eviction proceedings in the court in order to see how the process works. This way, you know what to expect, how long eviction proceedings last, and you won’t be as nervous when it’s your turn. Generally, you should expect to be in court for the majority of the day.
You need to arrive at least 15 minutes before the time listed on your court hearing notice, and you should expect to wait an hour or two for your case to be called. You may then have to spend another few hours at court if a ruling isn’t made or if mediation is required.
The judge will either find in the tenant’s favor, in your favor, or send you to mediation to work out a resolution. If they find 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 starting the eviction process over again. If they find in your favor, the judge will order the tenant to vacate your rental unit in a certain amount of time, generally a week or two.
5. The Eviction Is Scheduled
If the judge rules in your favor, they will schedule a day and time for the local sheriff to help you evict the tenant. The tenant will be notified of this time when the sheriff’s deputy serves them a notice stating the date and time of the eviction. Usually, you pay a few hundred dollars for the court to arrange this. Then another couple hundred dollars is paid to actually have the sheriff conduct the eviction.
If the tenant cooperates, they will move their belongings out themselves. The sheriff will not help move their belongings, but will make sure the tenant leaves and you can change the locks and reclaim your property.
Generally, if the tenant doesn’t remove all of their belongings that day, you will have to store them in a safe place for 30 days. During this time, you and the tenant will coordinate a time to meet and the tenant will remove the remainder of their belongings. 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
Since this process can end up costing 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 better.
“Here in Chicago, it’s impossible to evict a tenant in the winter months, so if you start the eviction process in August and get a judgment by October, the tenant won’t actually have to leave until April. This means the eviction process can sometimes take up to nine months. During that time, owners aren’t collecting rent but are still responsible for paying their mortgage on time. This is one of the reasons why it’s so important to avoid problem tenants by thoroughly screening all prospects before renting.” — Ryan Coon, Co-founder and CEO of Avail
To protect yourself from bad tenants in the future, consider the following:
- Background check each tenant
- Check tenant’s references
- Call tenant’s place of employment to verify they still work there
- Credit check
- Check eviction and landlord history
To learn more about screening tenants, check out our buyer’s guide on the best tenant screening services here.
An Alternative to the Eviction Process: Cash for Keys
If you want to avoid the eviction process altogether, you might want to consider alternatives to traditional eviction. One great way to do this is often referred to as “cash for keys.” Instead of going through the process of eviction, you simply offer the tenant a cash payment in exchange for moving out of your unit.
You will need to explain to the tenant that the eviction process can be costly for them, and may leave them with blemishes on their credit when you sue in small claims court for past rent or even wage garnishment (after attempting to recoup the lost rent in housing court). Explain that the alternative would be a cash payment in exchange for the keys to the property.
If they agree, make sure to draw up a document terminating the lease and make sure they sign and date it. Also, make sure that they hold up their end of the bargain. Inspect the unit before handing over cash and having them sign the document.
You can offer your tenant a cash for keys agreement before you start the eviction process, or at any point along the way. That said, most lawyers and property managers recommend sending an eviction notice first. This shows the tenant you’re serious and may make them more likely to accept your offer.
To learn more about how cash for keys works, check out our in-depth guide on cash for keys.
Free Eviction Checklist
Evicting a tenant can be an expensive and time-consuming process with a lot of small details to remember. We do recommend using a real estate attorney, but if you decide to file the eviction yourself or if you want to know what’s going on during the process, our convenient eviction checklist is a helpful tool.
Included in this checklist are things like when to send an eviction notice, a reminder to make extra copies of documents, and what to bring with you to court. Looking at the checklist and marking off everything you’ve completed will help you stay organized and ensure you don’t forget any important steps that could cost you time or money.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Can You be Evicted Without a Lease?
Yes, a tenant without a lease is called a “tenant at will,” and it’s generally a much faster eviction process for this type of tenant. The landlord usually has to give the tenant three days’ notice and then start the eviction process which, depending on the state, can take several months.
How Much Does It Cost to File for Eviction?
The cost to file for eviction varies from state to state, but filing fees are usually around $200+ (and if you hire an attorney, the fees are in the thousands). There are usually additional fees along the way for the tenant to be served with the eviction papers and fees if the sheriff has to show up to escort the tenant from the property.
For more state-specific landlord-tenant laws, check out our guide on landlord-tenant laws, including an interactive map of all 50 states.
How Much Notice Do You Have to Give a Tenant to Move out?
This depends on your lease, and the lease depends on the state’s landlord-tenant laws. However, in most cases, you need to wait until three days after the rent’s due date before giving the tenant a notice of eviction. Then the tenant usually has 30 days to comply or move out. You should be familiar with your lease so you know how to evict a tenant the right way.
How Can an Eviction Notice be Served?
The eviction notice must be served properly according to your state’s landlord-tenant laws. Usually, it must be mailed using certified mail and a copy must be submitted to the court along with the lease in order to start the eviction process.
Can I Evict a Tenant if They Pay Rent on Time?
The most common reason to evict a tenant is because they haven’t paid rent. However, you can evict a tenant if they violate any of the terms of your lease. For example, if they intentionally damage your property, you can file an eviction. You can also file an eviction if the number of occupants living in the property exceeds the number allowed on the lease.
The Bottom Line
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 you file a valid and legal eviction.