Failure to pay rent is one of the most common reasons a tenant can be evicted in Virginia. After a tenant fails to pay rent on time, a landlord can begin eviction proceedings against the tenant.
Unless the lease says otherwise, rent is typically due on the first day of the month, even if the first of the month is a weekend or holiday. A landlord is not required to give a tenant a grace period, which means the landlord can begin eviction proceedings against the tenant the very day after rent is due if it remains unpaid.
The landlord and the tenant can agree to different terms regarding the rent due dates, such as a grace period, but the agreement must be put in writing in the lease. The landlord and the tenant are then required to follow the terms of the lease.
The landlord's first step in the eviction process is to give the tenant a five-day notice to pay or quit. As long as the landlord and tenant did not agree to a grace period in the lease, the landlord can give the tenant the notice to pay or quit the day after rent is due. After receiving the notice to pay or quit, the tenant will have five days to either pay rent or move out of the rental unit. The five days includes weekends and holidays. If the tenant does not move out of the rental unit or pay rent, the landlord’s next step is to file an eviction lawsuit with the court (see Va. Code Ann. § 55-225).
To be valid, the five-day notice to pay or quit must be written, and it must include the following information:
According to Virginia law, as long as the tenant has actually seen the notice to pay or quit, then service will be valid. The best practice for a landlord in Virginia is to hand deliver the notice to pay or quit directly to the tenant. The landlord then needs to fill out a certificate of service that states the time and date the notice was given to the tenant.
If the tenant is unavailable in person, the next best practice for the landlord is to post a copy of the notice in a conspicuous place at the rental unit, such as on the front door, and also mail a copy to the tenant through certified mail.
The landlord and tenant could also agree to receive notices electronically, such as via email. However, this agreement must be in writing in the lease. If the landlord and tenant did not agree beforehand to this method of service, then the landlord cannot use it to serve the notice to pay or quit (see Va. Code Ann. § 55-248.6).
A tenant has several options after being given a five-day notice to pay or quit.
The only way a landlord can legally evict a tenant in Virginia is by winning an eviction lawsuit, also called an unlawful detainer suit. To begin the lawsuit, the landlord must file a summons for unlawful detainer with the General District Court. The court will issue a date for a hearing before a judge, and the tenant will be given a copy of the summons. At the hearing, the judge will listen to both the landlord and the tenant and make a decision regarding the eviction. If the landlord wins, the landlord will file a request for a writ of possession, which the sheriff will use to remove the tenant and the tenant’s possessions from the rental unit.
It is unlawful for a landlord to attempt to evict a tenant through any means other than going to court. For example, a landlord cannot change the locks at the rental unit or shut off the utilities. This type of behavior is sometimes referred to as an unlawful ouster or a “self-help” eviction. If a landlord attempts to evict a tenant through one of these unlawful methods, the tenant can sue the landlord for damages (see Va. Code Ann. § § 55-248.26, 55-225.2). For more information on unlawful ousters, see the Nolo article Illegal Eviction Procedures in Virginia.
Nolo has many other articles on landlord-tenant relations in Virginia, including tenant defenses to evictions in Virginia. The Virginia charts in the State Landlord-Tenant Laws section of the Nolo website also have useful information. For more eviction articles, see the Evicting a Tenant or Ending a Lease section of Nolo.