As landlords, we hope to avoid costly (and stressful) tenant evictions. In reality, sometimes evicting a tenant just comes with the territory. If you’ve found yourself wondering how to evict a tenant—or if perhaps there’s another way out of your predicament—you’ve come to the right place. This step-by-step guide will walk you through the entire eviction process, from hiring an attorney and notifying the tenant, all the way through to your court date and tenant removal.
All of my hopes and dreams began to crash down around me with one simple question from my parents:
“Well, Brandon, what are you going to do if your tenants don’t pay rent?”
“Make them?” I thought, naively.
“Go bankrupt?” I feared, unnecessarily.
“Kick them out?” I hoped.
You see, nearly 10 years ago, I decided that rental properties were going to be my ticket to financial freedom. I was bitten by the bug and could think of very little else, until that simple question stopped me in my tracks.
What would I do if a tenant didn’t pay rent?
This is how I first discovered BiggerPockets a decade ago. I used an online search engine and typed in those words: “What to do if tenants don’t pay rent?” What I discovered was a community of others who had “been there, done that” and had answers.
I find it incredibly rewarding that today I am able to repay that favor by explaining to you exactly what to do when tenants don’t pay rent. Of course, there are a lot of other reasons you may want to evict a tenant (usually for lease violations or because they’ve stayed longer than they were supposed to) and this guide will help you as well.
This post is going to cover exactly how to evict a tenant. But it’s going to go even deeper. We’re going to explore some ways that you, as the landlord, can navigate these muddy waters and maybe solve the problem without resorting to the “eviction” route.
How to Evict a Tenant: 3 Rules to Understand
1. Not paying rent is a serious thing.
The tenant is stealing money from your bank account. You wouldn’t let your neighbor, friend, or even your own family gain access to your checking account and remove hundreds of dollars against your will. So why would you allow a stranger to do so?
You may think I’m being dramatic, but it’s the truth. So first, don’t think of late rent as a mere inconvenience. Recognize it for the serious issue that it is.
2. This WILL happen to you, and there are answers.
This is a very normal thing, so don’t freak out. You’ll get through it. But nevertheless, it’s best to have a system in place and know exactly how to deal with it when it occurs. This way, you can jump on it immediately, giving you the best chance for recovering that rent. This post hast been specifically designed to teach you how to evict a tenant with as little pain as possible.
3. Eviction rules are incredibly state-specific.
In other words, how to evict a tenant in your state may vary from the next. The entire eviction process is governed by the rules and laws of each individual state. So everything below about how to evict a tenant is just general practice. Specific days and dates will require you to do a little research into your state’s landlord-tenant laws. Below, I’ve placed links to the landlord-tenant laws regarding evictions for all 50 states.
How NOT To Evict a Tenant
I recently heard of a landlord in my town who was dealing with a delinquent tenant and decided to take matters into his own hands. He waited until the tenant was out of the house, went into the property, and began taking stuff.
Not only is this tenant still in the property, but the landlord now has a lawsuit to deal with.
Please, please, please don’t go “outlaw” and take the eviction process into your own hands. I know you’ll want to. But don’t. This is what’s known as a self-help eviction, and it’s illegal in most of the 50 states. (And a bad idea in all of them!)
Don’t change the locks.
Don’t remove the windows and doors.
Don’t shut off their utilities.
Don’t take their stuff.
You’ll have enough drama to deal with trying to evict the tenant. Don’t compound it by making yourself look like the bad guy when it comes time to stand in front of a judge. Follow the rules, follow the laws, and let the eviction process work.
What to Do Before Filing Eviction on a Tenant
Evicting a tenant is a messy business. It can be expensive, stressful, and overwhelming—especially if you are new to the process. Therefore, I believe it is in your best interest to solve the problem outside of the eviction courts first (if possible). This doesn’t mean letting the process drag on for weeks, but there are some quick actions you can take to avoid an eviction. Let’s talk about those now.
1. Preventative Eviction-Avoidance
If you are trying to figure out how to evict a tenant, most likely you are stressed and angry at that tenant. However, understand that in most cases, evictions can be prevented with proper landlording practices. For example, by carefully screening potential tenants, you can avoid the most disastrous ones. By being firm but fair with your tenants in regard to late fees, you can avoid allowing your tenant get months behind in rent. Sometimes, no matter how great of a landlord you are, certain tenants just suck. The fact that you are reading this article tells me this may be the case for you.
Related: 7 Advanced Tenant Screening Tips (So You’re Not Fooled by Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing)
2. The Phone Call
When a tenant’s rent is not received by the due date, the first thing I typically do is call them.
Of course, many landlords skip this step (and with repeat offenders, I skip this also). Most of the time, when the rent is late, it’s because the tenant simply forgot or there’s another easy explanation.
If you cannot get in touch with the tenant via their phone, you can try emailing them if you have their email address. If you can get in touch, usually they’ll say something like, “Shoot, OK… I’ll pay that today. I forgot, sorry.” I always remind them to be sure to include the late fee with their payment.
As much as you might want to be the nice guy here and waive the late fee, remember that late fees are designed to train the tenant to make rent a priority. By waiving it, you simply demonstrate that you have the power to waive it any time they ask.
Now, if you get in touch with the tenant and they don’t have the rent, you have a problem. Most likely, you’ll hear the words, “Can you work with me?”
Should you? Maybe. Maybe not. Let’s talk about that next.
Should I Work With My Tenant or Evict Them?
Many tenants will request that you “work with them” when they know the rent will be late. Deciding to work with them is a bit of an art form. There is a strategy for doing so that won’t leave you in the lurch if something goes wrong. But before we get there, let’s talk about the three most common reasons why rent is usually late:
I see a common pattern with late rent, and it’s caused by the fact that there are more than four weeks in a month. In April, the tenant might get paid on the third and the 17th. Then in May, their paychecks may land on May first, 15th, and 29th. Then in June they are paid the 12th and 26th; in July, the 10th and 24th. As you can see, paydays sometimes come more often than twice a month, and tenants have a hard time getting used to that. In the dates above, the tenant would likely use their May 1st paycheck for May rent.
Then they hopefully would use the paycheck from the 29th of May to pay their June rent. But then that check on June 26th comes around, and the tenant realizes they still have a full week until rent is due, and they really need that money for something else, so they say, “I’ll just spend this paycheck and use the next one for rent.” But the next one doesn’t come until July 10th, so the tenant calls on the fifth of July and says, “My rent is going to be late because my paycheck doesn’t come until Friday.” As if some freak occurrence caused their paycheck to be delayed. I see this situation play out almost every single month with our rentals.
2. Illness or Job Loss
Despite what the media might have you believe, job loss and illness are actually pretty uncommon reasons for unpaid rent. But when this is the case, it’s incredibly difficult to navigate. Naturally, we want to be kind to people and help them. We are not machines; we are human beings. However, it can be tough to know what is true versus what’s just a “sob story.” I wish I had an easy-to-follow guide for deciphering this, but there just isn’t one. Even if it is the truth, is that your responsibility? You’re running a business. You cannot be profitable if you cater to everyone’s problems. In fact, by being strict during difficult times, you may help keep their priorities straight and encourage them to work harder to get a new job or pay their other bills some other way.
Generally, I’ve looked at these situations like this: When someone is going through a tough time, the rent must be paid. The question is, will I pay it out of my own personal checking account? Or will I make the tenant pay it? This helps me to separate my feelings from reality. If I would write a personal check to this tenant for $1,000 because I want to help, then it’s a real enough situation where I might work with them on their $1,000 rent. But if not, I won’t. There are plenty of people in my own family who are struggling financially. I would rather give $1,000 to them than to my tenant.
I think the best way to continue talking about this is by sharing two real-life case studies with you. Each involves tenants who have been late with their rent payments recently. (Their names have been changed.)
Late-Payment Case Study #1
Luis was a single, hard-working guy who rented a small 1-bedroom house from us. One month, he called and explained that his paycheck wasn’t coming for several days and he needed a few more days to come up with the funds (probably because he spent his previous paycheck). We explained that he’d need to pay the late fee and the daily late fee. We asked him for an exact date in which he would be paying the rent. He said he could pay on the 11th. We told him, “That’s your choice, but you will receive a three-day late notice from us, and that starts the clock ticking. On the 12th, we have to file for eviction. So just make sure it’s paid by then, with the late fees.” The check came in on the 11th, along with the late fees, and Luis was back on track after this.
Late-Payment Case Study #2
Lana was a single mom of three kids who lived at our apartment complex. Although she was a nurse and made good money, she always struggled with paying the rent on time. She received late notices from us numerous times. Additionally, her family was incredibly messy. Garbage would literally pour out of the doors and windows of her unit. She was not one of our favorite tenants. One month, the rent didn’t show up (as usual), and we received no phone call.
We served the three-day notice, but heard nothing. The 10th of the month came and still, after repeated phone calls (and even stopping by to knock on her door), we could not get in touch. Finally, we sent a text message that said, “Eviction is being filed tomorrow, at which time it will be too late to stop. Can we talk?” Within a few minutes, we finally received a phone call. Lana stated that her paycheck was late and asked if we would work with her. We asked about the situation. She ignored the question, “Where did the last paycheck go?” When we asked about the exact date that she could pay, her response was, “I don’t know, maybe the 28th of this month.” We told her that would not work for us, and we would have to file for eviction. She hung up on us. Eviction was filed and within three weeks she had moved out, leaving us with a disaster of a unit. We did try Cash for Keys with her as well, to no avail.
As you can see in the examples above, we are not opposed to working with someone. In both cases we protected ourselves against loss (we still served the notice, and we still charged the late fee). However, in case #1, we worked with the tenant, as he maintained communication with us and didn’t demand an excessive amount of time. Working with case #2, however, would have resulted in disaster. We may have received the rent on the 28th, of course, but by then, the rent would be almost a month late. Would she have rent money for the next month, due just four days later? Of course not. And the pattern would repeat indefinitely until she most-likely would have flat-out stiffed us some month in the future.
If you are going to work with a tenant, only do so if you understand the situation. In other words, ask them why the rent is not paid. Explain the two-week paycheck problem to them, as we discussed above. Make them walk backwards with you through their paychecks if needed so they understand that getting paid every other week actually means they should be ahead on their rent. Then, find out exactly what day their paycheck will come in, and hold them to that. Never let a tenant get more than two weeks behind. Only work with them within the bounds of the law, protecting yourself.
Cash for Keys
Cash for Keys is a controversial process debated often in landlord circles. Cash for Keys is the event of giving your tenants money to leave the property, avoiding the eviction process altogether. I’ve used this system several times over the past few years to great success; however, before throwing money at your tenant, let’s talk about the specifics.
The idea behind Cash for Keys is simple: Giving the tenant money to leave is cheaper than paying an attorney for an eviction.
Think about it: Evicting a tenant will likely take a month or longer, depending on your state. It will cost you several thousand dollars in legal fees to do so, on top of the lost rent for at least a month and maybe two. Then, you have to deal with the clean up of a tenant who was just evicted, which, I guarantee you, isn’t very pretty. All in all, an eviction could cost you around $5,000 or more.
What if you could just offer your tenant $500 to leave the property in good condition?
Keep in mind, $500 is just an example. Maybe you want to give more? Maybe less? It will depend on the unit, the tenant, and the motivation. But $500 is usually enough to encourage someone to leave.
If you are going to try Cash for Keys, use the following 7 principles:
- Explain to the tenant, in detail, what they need to do to get the cash (the unit must be in move-in ready condition, so they have to clean it).
- Give the tenant a specific date to vacate, no more than four days away.
- Give a three-day notice to pay or vacate anyway (we’ll talk about this below). This way, just in case they don’t leave, you will not have lost much time.
- Never give the tenant money until they are completely out and have turned over the keys.
- Meet the tenant at the property and verify that the unit is, indeed, broom clean.
- Be safe. Take someone with you when you meet the tenant.
- If all looks good, have them sign a letter documenting that they are relinquishing their tenancy effective immediately. Have them sign and date it. Then give them the cash.
That’s Cash for Keys, an alternative to evicting tenants. Yes, it stings your pride. It feels so un-American, like the bad guy is getting away with the crime. I know some landlords flat-out refuse to even consider this idea because it feels so wrong. However, the truth is this is not personal, it’s business!
It’s like one of my favorite scenes from one of my favorite movies, Oceans 11. Brad Pitt’s character tells Andy Garcia’s:
“Are you watching your monitors? Okay, keep watching. In this town, your luck can change just that quickly. Take a closer look at your monitor. As your manager’s probably reporting to you now, you have a little over 160 million in your vault tonight. You may notice we’re only packing up about half that. The other half we’re leaving in your vault, booby-trapped, as a hostage. You let our 80 million go, and you get to keep yours. That’s the deal. You try to stop us, and we’ll blow both. Mr. Benedict, you could lose 80 million dollars tonight secretly or you could lose 160 million dollars publicly. It’s your decision.”
That said, Cash for Keys doesn’t always work. Some tenants will refuse it. Some tenants will ignore it. In that case, you’ll need to continue the eviction process.
Should I Hire an Attorney to Evict a Tenant?
Yes, you can do the job yourself and save a lot of money, but you could also cross one “t” incorrectly or dot one “i” the wrong way and lose weeks or months of work. The eviction process can be complicated. In most areas, the courts will not be as friendly to you as they are to the tenant. You already are facing a battle. To do it alone is dangerous.
To find a good attorney, ask for references from other landlords. This is one of the benefits to jumping into the BiggerPockets Forums and building relationships. If you are a BiggerPockets Pro member, you can also use BiggerPockets Meet to find investors in any zip code in America, and send them a message asking for a referral to a good attorney.
Another way to find a good attorney is to call your local county administration building and ask to speak to the person in charge of evictions. When you get him or her on the phone, ask which attorney files the most evictions in your area. This person will likely be a good attorney to talk with.
As you get more experienced with evictions (or if you are broke and you absolutely cannot afford an attorney), you could choose to do the eviction yourself.
But really, I wouldn’t recommend it.
How to Evict a Tenant: The Step-by-Step Eviction Process
At this point, you are ready to evict your tenant. This person has refused to pay or is completely unable to do so. As tough as it may sound, it’s time to begin the eviction process. Let’s walk though that process, step by step.
Step 1: Post or Deliver the Notice
The first “legal” step in evicting a tenant comes in the form of hand-delivering (serving) a notice to the tenant, letting them know of their grievance and what you are doing. The kind of notice served will depend on the reason they are being evicted.
- If they are being evicted for non-payment of rent, you will serve a “pay or vacate” notice, also known as a “pay or quit” notice, to their home. This notice lets them know that they have a certain number of days (depending on your state’s laws) to pay the rent or they will be evicted. The notice should also explain the rental amount due, along with the late fees or penalties that are being charged.
- If they are being evicted for other reasons, such as violating the terms of their lease (they moved in a pet, late-night partying, etc.), then they are served a “notice to comply,” which states that they have a certain number of days to rectify the situation or else be evicted.
Each state has different requirements for the notices that must be served. Be sure to check out your state’s process (links to all 50 states are above) to know which form to serve.
In most states, the notice can be taped to the door of the rental unit if no one answers the door. However, if taped, most states require that a copy of the notice also be mailed to the tenant. If you mail the notice, be sure to send it certified with return receipt from the U.S. Postal Service. This way, you can prove the document was delivered, but the tenant doesn’t need to sign for it.
Be careful to follow your state’s exact rules in regard to how this notice must be served. In some states, like Washington, the owner of the property may not serve the legal notice themselves. It’s also a good idea to record the date and time that the notice was served and whether it was handed to an adult in the home or taped to the door.
When it comes to the late-rent “pay or quit” notice, understand that once a notice has been served, collecting any amount of rent will likely start the clock ticking again, meaning new papers must be served going forward. Therefore, think twice before collecting a small amount from the tenant.
In addition to this notice, I like to send a personal letter to the tenant with the official notice to soften the blow a little. Legal notices can be very cold, causing anger and confusion for the tenant. The goal of the above letter is to get the tenant to communicate with us rather than simply burying their head in the sand (which is the common reaction for tenants going through hard times; they simply shut down). I want to make sure my tenants communicate with me and tell me what’s going on, so we can work out a plan that will avoid lawyers.
Step 2: File Eviction With the Court
After the minimum number of days have passed (as defined by the notice you served), it’s time to move forward with the eviction. If you hire an attorney, this is where the attorney will likely take over the process, letting you get back to your life. Be sure to give your attorney:
- A copy of the tenant’s lease
- Copies of the notice that was served
- A brief summary of the situation
If you plan to do the eviction yourself, the second step is to officially file the lawsuit with the court. (Yes, this is a lawsuit you will be filing, and it is also known as an unlawful detainer.) This is done at your local courthouse, though you may need to make some phone calls first to find out exactly where to go and what paperwork you’ll need.
Once filed, the court administrator will issue a court date for you and your tenant to show up in court and plead both sides in front of the judge. Of course, if you are using an attorney, the attorney will show up in court. If you doing the eviction yourself, you will likely need to be present.
Step 3: The Lawsuit is Served
Once the lawsuit has been filed in court and the court date is set, the tenant will be served the official “unlawful detainer” lawsuit. Most likely, this will need to be served by a third party. This lawsuit usually must be delivered directly to the tenant—taping it to the door is generally not allowed unless special permission is given by the court, which could set the eviction back several weeks. So hopefully the server can get the document directly into the hands of someone living at the property.
Step 4: The Court Date
When the court date comes, you will need to be prepared (or your attorney will need to be!). Make sure you bring with you:
Generally, if the tenant does not show up to court and doesn’t respond to the lawsuit, they automatically lose. In my experience, this is generally how it goes down. I’ve done six evictions. Only once did the tenant show up in court, and she lost.
If the tenant does show up, the judge will hear both sides and rule either in the favor of the landlord or the tenant. If you (the landlord) lose the eviction, well, it sucks. It likely means you didn’t have all your paperwork in order, and you might have to start over at the beginning. However, if you did everything right, and you win the case, a judgment is issued against the tenant for the amount of money owed in rent, plus additional fees, such as court costs, attorney’s fees, late charges, and back rent.
Additionally, the court will order the tenant to vacate the premises within a certain number of days (depending on the state). This is done through a document known as a writ of restitution or writ of possession. This writ gives the landlord the legal right to remove the tenant. Usually the writ will allow the tenant a certain number of days—often between 24 hours and one week—to completely vacate.
Keep in mind, in some Northern states, evictions during the cold winter months can be put on hold until warmer weather. There’s simply not much you can do about this.
Step 5: Schedule with the Sheriff
Once the tenant loses the eviction, the landlord (or attorney) will need to take the writ of restitution to the sheriff. That’s right, you cannot physically go and remove the tenant’s stuff from their home without a sheriff. You’ll have to pay another fee to the Sheriff and fill out some more forms, and an eviction date will be set. The sheriff’s department will likely go to the home and post their own notice, giving a date and time that they will be at the home to remove the contents.
Step 6: Remove the Tenant (with Help)
Generally, the tenant will leave before the sheriff shows up, but it’s entirely possible that the tenant may still be there—and angry—when the sheriff arrives. The sheriff’s job is to keep the peace and physically remove the tenant if needed, but it is NOT their job to remove the contents of the property. They will simply supervise you and your crew as you remove everything. I would recommend taking a video camera with you and recording the contents of the property the moment you enter the property behind the sheriff, so a tenant won’t be able to claim you “stole” their stuff.
Usually, the tenant’s stuff will be placed outside on the nearest public roadway, but not always. The tenant can request that the landlord store their belongings (yes, really), so you may need to store their stuff. Of course, the tenant would be required to pay for this, but there is no clear rule on when they need to pay for it. The reality is you may end up storing it and never getting paid back for the expense.
If the tenant does not request you store their stuff, the sheriff will remove the tenant and the belongings will need to be removed. At that point, you’ll need to change the locks immediately. The property is yours again.
Of course, this whole process can be very expensive and stressful. There may be ways to get back some or all of the money owed, since you do have a judgment. But collecting past-due rent (and other costs) is like trying to squeeze blood from a turnip. I haven’t been successful in collecting a penny thus far. Still, we report our judgments to debt collectors (who take a portion of any money they recover). At the very least, they’ll hound the tenant for many years to come. It’s a small win, but after a lengthy eviction, I’ll take it!
Frequently Asked Questions on How to Evict a Tenant
Although this might be the longest post I’ve ever written, there are likely topics I’ve still not covered. Therefore, I want to end this post with some of the most frequently asked questions about evictions. I’ll try to update this list in the future as well, so this will continue to be the top resource on the web for learning how to evict a tenant.
How Long Does an Eviction Take?
In most states, as long as everything goes as planned, an eviction takes about a month. However, in some “tenant-friendly” states, evictions can take up to six months.
How Much Does an Eviction Cost?
The state-required legal fees involved with an eviction are fairly light, usually no more than a few hundred dollars. However, the attorney fees and lost rent are the big cash-flow killers. You’ll likely spend between $1,500 and $3,000 on attorney’s costs, plus incur several months of lost rent and damages to the property. Cash for Keys doesn’t sound so crazy now, does it?
How to Evict a Tenant Without a Rental Agreement
If you don’t have a rental agreement with your tenant, it is still possible to evict. In most states, a tenant without a lease is treated the same as a tenant on a month-to-month lease. This can actually be a good thing for you, in that an eviction could be avoided by simply not “renewing” the month-to-month lease. In this case, ask the tenant (with a notice, usually 20 or 30 days) to vacate. Of course, if you have to evict without a rental agreement, bring with you every bit of paperwork you can in regards to the tenant.
Where Do I Get an Eviction Letter?
Before filing the lawsuit, you will need to serve the tenant with a notice, also known as an “eviction letter.” This is either the “Pay or Quit” notice or the “Notice to Comply” letter. These can be obtained from an attorney or online through sites like EZLandlordForms.com.
Final Thoughts on Tenant Evictions
Alright, it’s time to wrap this post up. I want to end with one final word of encouragement. Evictions are annoying, but they are part of doing business as a landlord. Don’t panic when you need to do an eviction. Instead, move forward with confidence and take care of the problem. Once again, I do recommend you contact an attorney to help you with your eviction, at least on the first one.
What other questions can I answer for you?
Leave your comments below!