How Evictions Work: Rules for Landlords and Property Managers

An overview of the eviction process, including the termination notices required for different situations.

A landlord cannot begin an eviction lawsuit without first legally terminating the tenancy. To legally terminate a tenancy, the landlord must give the tenant written notice, as specified in the state's termination statute. If the tenant doesn't move (or fix the problem that prompted the termination—for example, by paying the rent or finding a new home for the dog), the landlord can then file a lawsuit to evict. Eviction lawsuits in your area might be called unlawful detainer (UD) suits or another similar name.

State laws set out detailed requirements to end a tenancy. The type of termination notice a landlord must serve depends on the situation, and each state has its own procedures as to how termination notices and eviction papers must be written and delivered ("served").

Notices for Termination With Cause

Although terminology varies somewhat, when landlords have a reason (cause) for wanting a tenant out, they can use one of three types of termination notices:

  • Pay rent or quit notices, which landlords typically use when the tenant has not paid the rent. They give the tenant a few days (three to five in most states) to pay the rent or move out ("quit"). See Nolo's chart of state laws on termination for nonpayment of rent for more details.
  • Cure or quit notices, which landlords typically give after a tenant violates a term or condition of the lease or rental agreement, such as a no-pets clause or the requirement to refrain from making excessive noise. Usually, the tenant has a set amount of time in which to correct, or "cure," the violation. A tenant who fails to do so must move or face the possibility of an eviction lawsuit. See Nolo's chart of state laws on termination for violation of lease for more details.
  • Unconditional quit notices, which are the harshest of all. These order the tenant to move out with no chance to pay the rent or correct a lease or rental agreement violation. In most states, unconditional quit notices are allowed only when the tenant has:
    • 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.

In some states, landlords are not required to give tenants the opportunity to pay overdue rent or fix a lease violation. In these states, landlords may use unconditional quit notices right away—they can extend second chances if they wish, but no law requires them to do so. See Nolo's chart of state laws on unconditional quit terminations for more details.

When tenants have received notice but do not move or fix the lease or rental agreement violation by the deadline in the notice, the landlord can file an eviction lawsuit.

Notices for Termination Without Cause

Typically, landlords who do not have cause cannot terminate the tenancy of a tenant with a fixed-term lease.

When the tenancy is subject to a month-to-month or other shorter term rental agreement, landlords can terminate without cause. They simply must provide the tenant with the amount of notice required by state law. (Note that many rent control laws do not allow landlords to terminate even month-to-month or shorter term rental agreements without cause.)

Defenses to Eviction the Tenant Might Raise

If the tenant decides to mount a defense against an eviction suit, it might add weeks—even months—to the eviction process. A tenant can point to mistakes in the notice or the eviction complaint, or improper service (delivery) of either, in an attempt to delay or dismiss the case.

Courts often take into account a landlord's past action (or lack of action) when deciding an eviction suit. When a landlord has failed to keep the rental in a safe and habitable condition, or when the landlord has filed the eviction suit in retaliation for a tenant's legal acts, courts are less likely to find in favor of eviction.

Removing the Tenant After an Eviction Suit

Landlords who win an eviction suit receive a judgment for possession of the property, and possibly an order that the tenant pay any unpaid rent. However, even a landlord receives a judgment for possession, it is illegal for the landlord to try to remove the tenant by locking the tenant out or turning off utilities. Rather, landlords must follow the state and local procedures for the physical removal of tenants. These often require landlords to retain the sheriff or other local law enforcement to carry out the actual eviction.

Typically, you must give the court judgment to a local law enforcement officer (sheriff or marshal), along with a fee that is charged to the tenant as part of your costs to bring suit. The sheriff or marshal gives the tenant a notice that the officer will be back within a number of days to physically remove the tenant if the tenant isn't gone by then.

For details, see Nolo's chart of state laws on handling tenants' abandoned property.

Rationale for the Rules About Evicting a Tenant

Landlords often chafe at the detailed rules that they must follow. There is a reason, however, why most states insist on strict compliance. First of all, eviction lawsuits are, relatively speaking, fast legal procedures. (How many other civil cases are over and done with after a few weeks?) The price to pay for this streamlined treatment is unwavering adherence to the rules.

Second, what's at stake here—a tenant's home—is arguably more important than a civil case concerning money or business. Consequently, legislators have been extra careful to see that tenants get adequate notice and an opportunity to respond.

For More Help in Evicting a Tenant

Unless you thoroughly know your legal rights and duties before evicting a tenant, and unless you dot every "i" and cross every "t," you might end up on the losing side.

If you need help understanding the eviction processes and rules in other states or need state-specific guidance on legally evicting a tenant, see our state-by-state guides on evicting tenants.

For an overview of terminations and evictions in other states, including relevant state laws on termination for nonpayment of rent and for lease violations, see Nolo's Every Landlord's Legal Guide, by Marcia Stewart, Janet Portman, and Ann O'Connell.