How Evictions Work: What Renters Need to Know

Landlords can't just lock you out. First, they must terminate the tenancy. If you don't leave or fix the problem, they can then file an eviction suit.

By , Attorney · UC Berkeley School of Law

Your landlord can't evict you without terminating the tenancy first. This usually means giving you adequate written notice in a manner that complies with state law. If you don't move or fix ("cure") the problem that prompted the notice, the landlord can file a lawsuit to evict you. In order to win, the landlord must prove that you did something wrong that justifies ending the tenancy early.

State laws contain 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 the tenant ("served"). Landlords must follow state rules and procedures exactly or risk having their case thrown out of court.

When a Landlord Might Send a Notice of Termination for Cause

Although terminology varies somewhat from state to state, when you violate your rental agreement or lease in some way, you'll likely receive one of the following types of termination notices:

  • Pay Rent or Quit Notice. Landlords give these to tenants who haven't paid the rent. If you receive one of these, you have a few days (three to five in most states) to pay the rent or move out ("quit"). If you move out but don't pay, your landlord can still sue you for the amount of rent you owe.
  • Cure or Quit Notice. Landlords give these to tenants who 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. If you don't want to or can't fix the violation, you must move out by the deadline given in the notice.
  • Unconditional Quit Notice. This is the harshest type of notice to quit. It orders the tenant to move out, and doesn't give them the 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.

When a Landlord Might Send a Notice of Termination Without Cause

Even when you haven't violated the rental agreement and haven't been late paying rent, a landlord can probably 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 long enough notice period.

For example, if you have a month-to-month rental agreement, in most states your landlord can terminate your tenancy with a 30-day notice to vacate—even if you've been an ideal tenant. (The length of the required notice might be slightly longer or shorter depending on your state's law.)

When a Landlord Might File an Eviction Lawsuit

Following receipt of a termination notice, if you don't move out or fix the violation by the date specified in the notice, the landlord must properly serve you with a summons and complaint for eviction in order to proceed.

The court will set a date and time for a hearing or trial before a judge. You must show up to this hearing. If you don't, the judge will likely rule against you, even if you have a possible defense to the eviction.

Possible Tenant Defenses to Eviction

If you do get hauled into court, you might be able to present a defense to the court and 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 During an Eviction

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. Do your best to collect all your personal belongings—if you leave anything behind, the landlord might be able to treat the items as abandoned property and dispose of them.

If you're a renter and want more information on evictions, see Every Tenant's Legal Guide.

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