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Eviction Process for Tenants – What to Do If You Get a Notice Letter

Few people enter into a lease agreement planning to break it, but life can throw you curveballs. Maybe you lost your job and you can’t make the rent, maybe you have a problem with your neighbor, or maybe your landlord refuses to repair a major mechanical system in the property. Receiving an eviction notice letter is the beginning of a formal process of a landlord ending your lease and forcing you to vacate.

Knowing your rights ahead of time helps you get through the eviction process with less confusion and stress, especially if you feel that you’re being unfairly evicted. Follow these tips to protect yourself as a tenant during the eviction process.

The Difference Between Eviction and Nonrenewal

First and foremost, you should understand the difference between the landlord filing for eviction and nonrenewing your lease contract.

When a tenant violates their lease contract, such as failing to make the rent payment, the landlord files for eviction. Eviction filings are always for breach of lease, real or perceived. If you dispute that you violated the lease, you get a fair chance to make your case in court at the eviction hearing (more on that shortly).

Nonrenewal, in contrast, happens when one party simply decides not to renew the lease agreement when the term ends. You can give your landlord proper notice that you plan to move out at the end of the term, or they can give you similar notice — either way the lease contract ends after the current term expires. There are a few U.S. cities with extreme laws favoring tenants over landlords — that allow tenants to nonrenew but not landlords — but such tilting of the legal scales is rare.

If you fail to move out at the end of your lease, then the landlord can file for eviction, as that too constitutes a breach of lease.

You Can Usually Cure the Breach to Stop Evictions

In most cases, if you “cure” or fix the lease violation, it stops the eviction. For example, if you fall behind on rent and the landlord files for eviction, you can stop the eviction proceeding by bringing your rent current.

There are a few situations where you might not be able to cure the violation to stop the eviction. If your landlord decided not to renew your lease contract, for example, but you refused to move out at the end of the lease term, they would file for eviction and the only cure is to vacate the premises.

Some states and cities also allow landlords to continue their eviction despite a tenant cure if the tenant has repeatedly violated the lease. In these cases, the laws say that if the landlord has rightfully filed for eviction a certain number of times in a 12-month period, the landlord does not need to cancel the eviction process even if the tenant cures the current violation. For instance, if you pay rent late four times in a year and the landlord files for eviction each time, the fifth time might be the last straw legally — even if you come up with the money before the eviction date.

The Eviction Process and Tips for Tenants

If you’re going to protest an eviction, you first need to understand the process.

Every state has a version of the Landlord and Tenant Act. This act lays the groundwork for the relationship between you and your landlord. Most states’ landlord and tenant laws have a lengthy section detailing the eviction process. Get a copy of your state’s Landlord and Tenant Act and read it cover to cover. Most states post a copy on their attorney general website. You can also get a copy by visiting a local courthouse.

When reading through the act, pay special attention to the sections on notices and illegal evictions. Many states require that your landlord give you proper notice before filing an eviction, and most states require that the landlord give you time to correct the action. If your landlord has not done this, they may have violated the law. An illegal eviction occurs when the landlord tries to evict you on their own, like by changing the locks or removing your property. Most states will not allow this and you have the right to sue your landlord for damages.

A legal eviction follows a formal process as outlined by the law.

Step 1: Landlord Serves an Eviction Warning Notice

To lay the groundwork for filing an eviction, the landlord must first serve you with an eviction notice.

This written notice clearly states your lease violation, and typically gives you a specified amount of time to cure the violation. That period varies by state and, in some cases, by the lease violation — some states offer a different time window for nonpayment of rent than they do for other violations, such as prohibited pets or illegal activity.

Before the landlord can file in court for eviction, they must first wait out this mandatory period to let you cure the violation. These notices come with names like “Five Day Notice to Cure or Vacate.”

Note that different states allow different methods for serving the notice on you. Most state laws allow certified mail, in-person delivery to an adult tenant, or posting the notice on the front door of the unit.

Tenant Tips

If you truly did violate the lease, cure the violation now if you can, so your landlord never even files in court for eviction.

If you dispute the violation, try contacting your landlord to discuss. After all, many landlord-tenant disputes arise out of miscommunications or misunderstandings. Avoid the temptation to fall into an argument, and instead keep the long-term goal in focus: persuading the landlord to see the issue from another angle. When you practice the art of persuasion, you don’t scream or harangue; you lead your listener down a path to the conclusion you want them to reach.

Now is the right time for negotiation as well as persuasion. Say you did violate your lease by inviting your boyfriend to move in with you without telling your landlord. Try taking the following tack with your angry landlord to talk them out of filing eviction: “I’m so sorry I never let you know about Robbie. He’s actually far more of a neat freak than I am, and he’s been keeping the apartment much cleaner. I understand if you want us to move out, but we love living here and take great care of the apartment, and would love to stay long-term and keep paying rent on time. What can we do to work this out?”

Few landlords can stay angry in the face of such a reasonable approach. It speaks to all their wants: a well-treated rental unit, low turnover rates, and on-time rent payments.

As a final note, keep detailed records of all communications. Written communication makes that easier to do, but also feels less personal and allows more room for misinterpretation.

Step 2: The Landlord Files for Eviction and the Court Schedules a Hearing

If you don’t cure the violation or reach some other understanding with your landlord, they file for eviction after the mandatory waiting period.

At that point the court will schedule an eviction hearing, and mail you a notice of the date, time, and location.

Tenant Tips

First of all, open your mail. If you procrastinate in opening official-looking mail because you know you won’t like what’s inside, you could miss your opportunity to appear in court and present your side of the story.

Although you do not have to have a lawyer during an eviction, getting legal assistance can help tremendously if you feel the landlord has filed for eviction unfairly. If you cannot afford a private attorney, you can get assistance from The Legal Aid Society. Legal Aid has a branch in nearly every major city in the U.S. and will provide their services for free or at a reduced cost. You can get a consultation and the service may send a lawyer to help you during the eviction hearing. When you visit the Legal Aid office, bring your documentation. It also helps to mentally run through your case before visiting with the lawyer.

As a landlord myself, it’s worth mentioning that when tenants hire an attorney, it marks a point of no return for our relationship. Any chance for negotiating a payment plan or redrafting the lease to allow a new pet or additional tenant disappears once attorneys get involved.

Don’t expect your landlord to go back to being your buddy after you show up to rent court with legal guns blazing.

Step 3: The Eviction Hearing

Everyone gets their day in court, and landlords and tenants are no exception.

At the hearing, the judge will ask the landlord why they filed for eviction, and for any evidence they brought supporting their claim that you violated your lease agreement. Then they turn to you as the tenant and ask if you dispute these claims, and if so, to present your evidence.

Once they’ve heard out both the landlord and tenant, the judge issues a ruling that either allows the eviction to move forward, dismisses the case entirely, or allows more time and requires the landlord to reschedule another hearing.

Tenant Tips

A great many tenants neglect to show up for the eviction hearing. This is a mistake if you dispute the eviction, because the judge automatically decides in favor of the landlord when the tenant doesn’t bother appearing.

Before the court hearing, assemble records of any interaction you have with your landlord. Keep a copy of every notice your landlord gives you. If your landlord speaks to you in person, make a note of the time, date, and nature of the visit. Find copies of cashed checks or rental receipts to prove past payments. Take photos with a date stamp to prove the property’s condition.

In other words, you want to build your case against the eviction using as much documentation as you can collect.

Prepare what you will say to the judge before the hearing. Go through all of your documentation and get a good idea of what defense you have against the landlord. On the day of the hearing, dress in business clothing, arrive early, and bring all of your documentation with you.

As a final note, read your rental agreement carefully. Just because your landlord says that your action violates the lease doesn’t mean it does — the lease could be entirely silent on the issue at hand. Sometimes, all you have to do is ask your landlord to point to the exact clause in the lease contract that you’ve violated, and explain to the judge that the lease contains no restriction against your action.

If the judge rules in your favor, it marks a good opportunity to extend an olive branch to your landlord. You presumably want to consider living in their rental property, and you don’t want an antagonistic relationship for the rest of your tenancy. Consider ways to approach the landlord and reconcile.

If the judge rules against you, the landlord can request an eviction date.

Step 4: The Court or Sheriff’s Office Schedules an Eviction Date

Different states vary on which governmental organization handles the actual put-out, but often it falls to the sheriff’s department. They schedule an eviction date and time, and you must vacate the unit before then or potentially surrender any belongings you leave inside it.

Tenant Tips

At this stage of the eviction process, it’s time to make arrangements to live somewhere else.

That could mean finding another long-term rental, or crashing with family or friends while you find your feet. You may also need to rent a storage unit to hold your stuff if you have not found another rental yet.

The delay between the eviction hearing and the put-out date varies by state and sometimes municipality. It could be as little as a matter of days, but more often takes weeks.

Don’t sit around and wait for the mailed notice of the eviction date. Contact the sheriff’s office or whichever department handles evictions in your state, and ask about the average delay between the court hearing and the eviction date. Plan accordingly!

Step 5: Eviction Day

On eviction day, the sheriff or other enforcement officer shows up at the announced time. The landlord or their representative must also be present, and they usually bring a contractor to change the locks.

The sheriff knocks on the door, and if no one answers, they step aside and ask the landlord to open the unit. After the landlord does so, the sheriff walks through to make sure no enraged tenants lurk with butcher knives, and legal possession of the unit officially transfers to the landlord.

If you remain in the unit when the sheriff shows up, they will physically remove you from it, and in most jurisdictions the landlord can remove any remaining belongings inside as abandoned junk.

Tenant Tips

Don’t still be in the unit when the sheriff arrives. Move your belongings out well ahead of time, so as not to risk leaving them behind once the landlord retakes possession of the unit.

Before you move, transfer all important mailing addresses to your new or temporary home. You don’t want paychecks, tax refund checks, or other important mail arriving at your old address after you exit.

Tips for Renting Another Home

Your landlord can notify the credit bureaus of your eviction, but most don’t go this far.

However, a few companies collect information on renters and then sell that information to prospective landlords. Thorough rental applications also ask whether you’ve ever been evicted, and if so, what the circumstances were. They also require that you sign that the information you presented is true, under penalty of perjury.

If you get evicted, there is a good chance your next landlord will find out about it.

When you go to rent your next apartment, be upfront with the landlord and explain the circumstances of the eviction. Offer to show the new landlord your documentation. Don’t bash your old landlord or refuse to accept responsibility for something that was your fault, such as not paying the rent. Doing so will make you look like a problem tenant and the landlord will likely decline your application.

You may have a hard time finding new digs with an eviction on your record, but many landlords will still offer you a second chance and approve you. However, you may have to pay a higher deposit or your last month’s rent upfront. It also helps you clear the tenant screening hurdles if you can offer to pay multiple months’ rent up front.

As time goes by, the eviction will have less of an impact on your renting life, but for the first home or two that you rent after an eviction, you may need to turn on the charm.

COVID-19 Eviction Issues

The CARES Act suspended many evictions nationwide, and after it expired, the CDC eviction ban outlawed nearly all evictions through the end of 2020. A stimulus and relief package passed in late December extended the eviction moratorium through the end of January 2021. It also set aside $25 billion for rent relief for low-income tenants, to be distributed by state and local governments.

Specifically, the eviction moratorium blocks landlords from filing for eviction on Americans earning less than $99,000 per year ($198,000 for married couples), or those who received a stimulus check as part of the CARES Act. The tenant must sign a declaration form to this effect and certify that they are unable to pay their rent due to loss of income or unforeseen medical expenses. They must also certify that they risk homelessness if they were to be evicted — a claim difficult to prove or disprove.

Importantly, the eviction moratorium does not lift tenants’ contractual obligation to pay rent and late fees. It simply postpones landlords’ ability to legally enforce the lease agreement.

Come February, landlords can file for eviction again, for the full amount that tenants owe. If you can afford your rent right now, you should absolutely pay it, for both the legal reason that it’s due and the moral reason that you are receiving the service for which the payment is due.

Final Word

An eviction may seem like the end of the world, but many renters go through it and come out on the other side with a new apartment and a second chance at renting. No matter what the circumstances are, following the laws and staying open and transparent will give you the best chance at beating the eviction or handling the fallout afterwards.

Remember that landlords don’t like evicting tenants. It’s expensive, time consuming, and stressful. Most would rather work something out with you than get a court order to lock you out. Negotiate terms with your landlord if you can, and avoid the stress of eviction.

G. Brian Davis is a real estate investor, personal finance writer, and travel addict mildly obsessed with FIRE. He spends nine months of the year in Abu Dhabi, and splits the rest of the year between his hometown of Baltimore and traveling the world.