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How To Legally (And Ethically) Evict A Bad Tenant

You have a tenant who has brought in an illegal pet, makes noise at night and has stopped paying rent. While the solution may seem obvious, evicting someone is a complicated and last-resort process. Unfortunately, it is also one that most long-term landlords and investment property owners will eventually come across — sometimes because you have failed to screen your tenants properly and sometimes because life situations change and a previously good tenant may simply not have the money to pay you.

“The most common issue is non-payment of rent,” Deni Supplee, a Realtor and co-founder of SparkRental. While you shouldn’t just allow a tenant to not pay or otherwise violate your rules, there are ways to make the process fair to both parties. Here are some tips for evicting a tenant lawfully and ethically:

1. Try to resolve problems before they arise…

Screening tenants before they move in is a major part of avoiding potential problems later on. Things like background checks and references should be an essential part of that process. That said, you can also do everything right and still have problems come up. As a landlord, you should be in constant communication with your tenants both about their concerns and things that it is your duty to fix. (If that sounds like too much work, hire a management company to do it for you.)

“Truth be told, far too many landlords fail to properly screen tenants or allow emotion to dictate choosing a tenant,” Supplee said.

2. Know the laws of your city and state…

While non-payment of rent is a valid reason to get evicted anywhere in the U.S., the specifics of when and why you can evict differ vastly from state to state and even city to city. In a state like Vermont, a tenant may be able to withhold payment of rent if essential appliances break down while in West Virginia non-payment under those circumstances would still be a reason for eviction. To make sure you know whether you have a right to launch eviction proceedings, familiarize yourself with the specific landlord laws of your area — these RentCafe charts provides a good overview of state-to-state eviction laws.

“The consequences vary by state and in some cases even locally,” Supplee said. “Some areas will prolong the eviction allowing the tenant to stay longer and forcing the landlord to start the procedure all over again. Some locales have monetary fines.”

3. Give plenty of notice…

But no matter where you live, the common rule is that eviction should only occur after you’ve exhausted all other possibilities. This means giving your tenant notice that they are due past rent and that you will start the eviction process if they fail to pay by a certain date. If the tenant is a reasonable person who got into a tough spot, Supplee suggests allowing them to leave by opting out of the lease rather than starting a formal eviction procedure. Some landlords also work out a cash-for-keys agreement in which the landlord pays a small amount of money to have the tenant leave willingly.

“If it has gotten to the point where a tenant is in place and causing problems, the landlord could work out an agreement to allow them out of the lease early with no penalty provided the rental is left in good condition and they leave by [a certain date],” Supplee said.

4. Give a formal notice of eviction…

So you’ve tried all of the above and a tenant still refuses to leave. The important thing is to stay cool and never take things into your own hands by changing keys or throwing out a tenant’s property — doing so without proper procedure is illegal and will work against you if the case comes before a court. Instead, file a summons in a local court, wait for the court hearing and let the court make the formal decision.

“You will probably have to show proof (via receipt from certified mail) that you have given the proper amount of time that your state requires for an eviction notice,” Landlordology founder Lucas Hall writes. At the hearing, you should also have copies of bounced checks, records of payments made and the lease agreement.

5. Move forward with the eviction…

Only after a court has ruled in your favor can you move forward with the final step of the eviction procedures. This means giving your tenant a set amount (usually from 48 hours to a week) amount of time to leave. After that, the final step is getting a sheriff, changing the locks and potentially suing for back rent.

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“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,” Hall writes. “It’s definitely not a favorable outcome, but it does happen.”