How Evictions Work: What Renters Need to Know

Landlords can't just lock you out, even if you are behind on rent. They must get a court judgment first.

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Your landlord can't evict you without terminating the tenancy first. This usually means giving you adequate written notice, in a specified way and form. If you don't move after proper notice (or reform your ways -- for example, by paying the rent or finding a new home for the dog), the landlord can file a lawsuit to evict you. (This type of lawsuit is sometimes called an unlawful detainer, or UD lawsuit.) In order to win, the landlord must prove that you did something wrong that justifies ending the tenancy.

State laws have very detailed requirements for landlords who want to end a tenancy. Each state has its own procedures as to how termination notices and eviction papers must be written and delivered to you ("served"). Landlords must follow state rules and procedures exactly.

Notice of Termination for Cause

Although terminology varies somewhat from state to state, there are basically three types of termination notices that you might receive if you have violated the rental agreement or lease in some way:

  • Pay Rent or Quit Notices are typically given to you when you have not paid the rent. These notices give you a few days (three to five in most states) to pay the rent or move out ("quit").
  • Cure or Quit Notices are typically given to you if you violate a term or condition of the lease or rental agreement, such as a no-pets clause or the promise to refrain from making excessive noise. Usually, you have a set amount of time in which to correct, or "cure," the violation.
  • Unconditional Quit Notices are the harshest of all. They order you to vacate the premises with no chance to pay the rent or correct a lease or rental agreement violation. In most states, unconditional quit notices are allowed only if you have:
    • repeatedly violated a significant lease or rental agreement clause
    • been late with the rent on more than one occasion
    • seriously damaged the premises, or
    • engaged in serious illegal activity, such as drug dealing on the premises.

Notice of Termination Without Cause

Even if you have not violated the rental agreement and have not been late paying rent, a landlord can usually ask you to move out at any time (assuming you don't have a fixed term lease) as long as the landlord gives you a longer notice period.

A 30-Day Notice to Vacate or a 60-Day Notice to Vacate to terminate a tenancy can be used in most states when the landlord does not have a reason to end the tenancy. (The length of the required notice can be slightly longer or shorter in some states.)

Rent Control Exceptions. Many rent control cities, however, go beyond state laws and require the landlord to prove a legally recognized reason for termination. These laws are known as "just cause eviction protection." (Tenants in only a couple of states -- New Jersey and New Hampshire -- also enjoy just cause eviction protection.)

Eviction Lawsuit

Following receipt of a termination notice, if you haven't moved out or fixed the lease or rental agreement violation, the landlord must properly serve you with a summons and complaint for eviction in order to proceed with the eviction.

Possible Defenses

If you do get hauled into court, you may be able to diminish the landlord's chances of victory. Perhaps you can point to shoddy paperwork in the preparation of the eviction lawsuit. Or maybe the landlord's illegal behavior, such as not maintaining the rental property in habitable condition, will serve as a good defense, as would a claim that the eviction lawsuit is in retaliation for your insistence on needed, major repairs.

Sheriff's Escort

Even if the landlord wins the eviction lawsuit, the landlord can't just move you and your things out onto the sidewalk. Landlords must give the court judgment to a local law enforcement office, along with a fee. A sheriff or marshal gives you a notice that the officer will be back within a few days to escort you off the property. At that point, it's best to acknowledge defeat and leave on your own steam.

If you're a renter and want more information on evictions, see Every Tenant's Legal Guide, by Janet Portman and Marcia Stewart (Nolo).

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