Evictions are one of the most legally intimidating things a landlord or property manager can do. Especially at a small company, emotions can run high, and it's easy to act rashly, but don't -- the last thing you want to do is invite a lawsuit.

If you do find yourself in a situation in which you need to evict a tenant, it's important to understand the laws that govern evictions in the United States. The following information is a brief overview, and laws may vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and may also change over time.

A Note on Unwritten Leases

If you're like most professional landlords, you probably enter into written contracts with your tenants. However, be aware that if you have an unwritten lease (i.e., a verbal agreement, like what you'd enter into with a friend, houseguest, or relative) the explanation below may not apply to you. In most jurisdictions, evicting a "tenant-at-will" who's on an unwritten lease can happen for any reason (with some exceptions -- see below), and it just requires giving them sufficient notice.

Be aware that residents of trailer parks are often treated like tenants-at-will for legal purposes.

Document Everything

As a professional, you should already keep good records, but this is doubly important surrounding evictions. You never know if you'll need to take an eviction to court, so plan ahead for that contingency. Meticulously document everything, including the tenant's infractions, conversations with the tenant about their behavior, and the circumstances under which you served the eviction notice.

When is an Eviction Justified?

Evictions are typically justified when there's been what's called a "material breach" of the lease, meaning that the tenant has not upheld a serious obligation. They may have failed to pay rent, caused property damage, or seriously and repeatedly disrupted other tenants, for example.

When is an Eviction Not Justified?

You cannot evict a legal tenant for any reason that is discriminatory -- meaning, for any reason that falls under the Fair Housing Act. You cannot evict someone for their race or for their gender. You also cannot legally evict a tenant for reasons that constitute retaliation; for example, if a tenant reports the residency to the authorities because it's not up to code.

Giving Notice, and Avoiding Evictions

This varies between jurisdictions, but generally there are three different kinds of eviction notice, which are typically posted to the tenant's door, or mailed:

  • Pay rent or quit is what it sounds like: The individual either pays the late rent (usually within a few days) or moves out.


  • Cure or quit alerts a tenant to an untenable situation within a residency -- such as a pet that shouldn't be in the household, disruptive behavior, and so forth. Again, either the tenant remedies the situation or moves out.


  • Unconditional quit notices mean that the tenant must leave, and is given no opportunities to rectify their behavior. These are comparatively rare, and are typically for severe legal infractions (like drug dealing), serious property damage, repeated lateness with rent or other serious breach of contract.


Further Proceedings

In most jurisdictions, even if a tenant remains in a residence after they've been served an eviction notice and haven't done anything to remedy the situation within the notice period, it's still illegal to evict a tenant by force (which means leaving their things on the curb, changing the locks and not giving them a key, etc.). Instead, hire a process server to serve papers to your resident, and begin to prepare for court proceedings.

If the court case came out in your favor and your resident still has not moved out, call the police -- you yourself still cannot forcibly evict the tenant.

POSTED December 04 2014 10:52 AM

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