Even if you screen tenants thoroughly, you might find yourself in a situation where you must evict a tenant. Evictions happen for a variety of reasons, but failing to pay rent is the most common.

Eviction can feel difficult and complicated, but it’s part of the business of managing rental properties. If a tenant can’t pay, you should remove them from your property. Sometimes, it’s as simple as asking them to leave. Other times, you’ll have to go through the formal eviction process.

Regardless of the situation, if you want to evict a tenant before the lease or rental agreement has expired, you must have legal cause. Before starting the eviction process, it’s in your best interest to know the rules and procedures.

Step 1: Understand your state’s eviction laws

Eviction laws vary by state, so learn yours. Incorporate the specifics into your lease agreement, so you and your tenants know the rules and regulations from the start.

If your lease agreement wasn’t been based off your state laws, or if you’re unsure about your situation, spend some time doing research to see if you can win an eviction case.

Know the Landlord and Tenant Act

The Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act (URLTA) provides a detailed explanation of the legal side of the eviction process. At least 21 states have adopted the URLTA as the foundation for their state-specific landlord-tenant laws.

Don’t take matters into your own hands

Self-help evictions, where the landlord evicts a tenant without going through the formal eviction process, are illegal in every state. No matter what the tenant has done, including causing physical damage to your property, don’t do any of the following actions without a court order:

  • Remove the tenant’s possessions from the property
  • Remove the tenant (i.e. hire Hulk Hogan to physically carry the tenant out)
  • Change the locks or lock out the tenant
  • Shut off essential utilities (electric, gas, water, etc.)
  • Unleash a family of skunks in the tenant’s basement (aka, harassment)

Follow these rules closely, and make sure you don’t give a judge any reason to doubt you followed the law throughout the process. In some cases, a tenant will make it easier for a landlord to evict them by breaking laws, destroying property, or violating the lease agreement.

Say goodbye to your friendship

Eviction usually sours the relationship between a landlord and tenant. Don’t expect to remain friends with any tenant you’re forced to evict. In the future, consider avoiding renting to friends.

Step 2: Have a valid reason for eviction

Don’t start the process if you don’t have a good and lawful reason to evict someone. In most cases, the following reasons are sufficient for an eviction:

  • Failing to pay rent
  • Violating the lease or rental agreement (pets, subletting, illegal use, etc.)
  • Causing significant damage to property
  • Breaking noise, occupancy, or health ordinances
  • Health or safety hazards caused by the tenant

Remember, you’ll need documented proof of any claim against your tenant, and always give them fair notice. “Innocent until proven guilty” is still overarching rule in the U.S. court system.

Step 3: Talk to your tenants

If you want to avoid the eviction process, which can take a lot of time and energy, try talking with your tenants first. Meet them at a coffee shop and talk about the situation. Be empathetic but firm. Having the conversation in a public space may help you have a more civil conversation.

Be direct

Here’s an example of what you might say when talking to your tenant:

I realize you’re having trouble paying your rent, and I feel for you. But I need someone in my rental who can pay rent, and if that’s not you, you need to leave. I want to give you a chance to leave on your own before I file an eviction lawsuit.

The eviction process could ruin your credit score, which will affect your ability to get a mortgage, car loan, or any loan.

When I win the case, I will also need to sue you for any back-due rent, and I could eventually use that judgement to garnish your wages. If I have to do that, your employer will know, which might embarrass you.

I don’t want to do any of this. How would you like to proceed? Will you pay your rent immediately in full, or will you vacate the property ASAP?

Step 4: Give a formal notice of eviction

If your tenant chooses to be uncooperative, and you’ve established that you have the right to evict your tenant, follow all the necessary steps.

One of the most important steps is to provide adequate “notice of eviction.” This can be a simple document or form that tells your tenant why they’re being evicted, and what they can do to avoid that eviction; pay rent, clean up the house, etc.

Tips for the eviction notice

Include a deadline (date) to pay the rent or move out

At this point, it’s their move…

Congratulations, your tenant should understand that you’ve done your research and you’re serious about the situation. If they don’t act in the set amount of time (usually a week), it’s time to file the eviction with the courts.

Step 5: File your eviction with the courts

Visit your local courthouse to file your eviction and pay the fee, at which point the clerk will schedule your hearing and will eventually notify the tenant on your behalf, via a summons.

You’ll probably have to show proof (via receipt from certified mail) that you gave the notice with the amount of time your state requires.

Step 6: Prepare for and attend the court hearing

Gather all related documentation and proof of your claim. You’ll want to have the following items, at a minimum:

  • Lease agreements
  • Bounced checks
  • Records of payment of any kind
  • Records of the communication between you and your tenant (phone and email records)
  • A copy of the written notice you provided your tenant
  • Dated proof that the tenant received the notice (a signature from the tenant or receipt from the post office)

Since a tenant won’t be able to claim they didn’t pay their rent (since they can’t fabricate real rent payment records), they may claim you didn’t properly inform them of the eviction. Be prepared.

Get some sleep the night before your scheduled court date, so you’re attentive and confident during the hearing. Always be honest and let your documentation and evidence speak for itself.

Step 7: Evict the tenant

If all goes well in court, your tenant will have a set amount of time to leave, which could range from 48 hours to a week, depending on which state your property is located in.

If your tenant doesn’t leave on time, you have the right to get someone from the sheriff’s department to escort them out and place their possessions on the curb. It’s definitely not a favorable outcome, but it happens.

Step 8: Collect past-due rent

Small claims court

Some courts allow you to combine eviction and small claims lawsuits, if they’re related and involve the same individuals. If this is the case, you can sue for any back-due rent at the same time as the eviction case.

If your local court doesn’t allow this, you’ll have to file a separate small claims lawsuit to pursue the owed rent money.

Garnish their wages

If the judge determines that the tenant does owe you the past-due rent, you’ll receive a judgement in your favor. This judgement will be delivered as a court order, which you can give to the tenant’s employer.

This will force the employer to garnish the tenant’s wages, and pay you before the tenant gets paid.

Garnish their tax refund

You can also garnish a tenant’s tax refund. RentPrep does a good job of explaining this process.

Use a private debt collector

Debt collection companies will help you collect the debt and report it to the three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion). It’s important to let the credit bureaus know about this tenant, so future landlords will be informed.

Protect yourself in the future

Evictions can be costly and time consuming, so do everything to avoid needing to perform one. Protect yourself by gathering as much info as you can about potential tenants before they move in. Cozy makes it easy!