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Evicting a Tenant: The Definitive Step-by-Step Guide

Brandon Turner
9 min read
Evicting a Tenant: The Definitive Step-by-Step Guide

As landlords, we hope to avoid costly (and stressful) tenant evictions. In reality, sometimes evicting a tenant just comes with the territory. If you’ve found yourself wondering how to evict a tenant from your rental property, you’ve come to the right place. This step-by-step guide will walk you through the entire eviction process, from hiring an attorney and notifying the tenant, all the way through to your court date and tenant removal.

First: Know Your State Laws

In other words, evicting a tenant in one state may be a very different process next. The entire process is governed by the rules and laws of each individual state. So everything below about how to evict a tenant is just general practice. Specific days and dates will require you to do a little research into your state’s landlord-tenant laws.

In most states, as long as everything goes as planned, an eviction takes about a month. However, in some “tenant-friendly” states, evictions can take up to six months.

What to Do Before Filing Eviction

Evicting a tenant is a messy business. It can be expensive, stressful, and overwhelming — especially if you are new to the process. Therefore, I believe it is in your best interest to solve the problem outside of the eviction courts first (if possible). This doesn’t mean letting the process drag on for weeks, but there are some quick actions you can take to avoid an eviction. Let’s talk about those now.

1. Try to avoid an eviction

If you are trying to figure out how to evict a tenant, most likely, you are stressed and angry at that tenant. However, understand that in most cases, evictions can be prevented with proper landlording practices. For example, by carefully screening potential tenants, you can avoid the most disastrous ones. By being firm but fair with your tenants in regard to late fees, you can avoid allowing your tenant get months behind in rent. Sometimes, no matter how great of a landlord you are, certain tenants just suck. The fact that you are reading this article tells me this may be the case for you.

2. Talk to your tenants

Of course, many landlords skip this step. But most of the time, when the rent is late, it’s because the tenant simply forgot or there’s another easy explanation. Usually, they’ll say something like, “Shoot, okay… I’ll pay that today. I forgot, sorry.” Remind them to be sure to include the late fee with their payment.

Now, if you get in touch with the tenant and they don’t have the rent, you have a problem. Most likely, you’ll hear the words, “Can you work with me?”

3. Establish an eviction fee schedule

Outlining the exact fee schedule in the terms of the lease makes evicting smoother—and can even thwart some evictions before they start.

  • Late rent fee: For example, consider giving the tenant until midnight on the due date to pay rent without penalty. Outline your exact late fees in the lease—and pay attention to your state’s related laws. (Consider requiring tenants to pay late fees with certified funds. Checks can take several days to bounce.)
  • Court filing fee: Determine how many days after rent is due you’ll wait to begin eviction filings. Then, charge your tenants a court filing fee. Five percent is often a good start, but make sure to check with your local courts to know exactly how much you’ll be paying—and thus want to pass on to your tenants.
  • Court appearance fee: You may consider charging an additional five percent for this fee.
  • Writ fees: Pass on these fees to your tenant, which often cost around $30 for the sheriff to serve their writ and $25 for the court clerk.

Related: What Does a Property Manager Do? Here’s the Job Description

Should I Hire an Attorney to Evict a Tenant?

In most cases, yes, you should probably hire an attorney to evict your tenant. Some states even require it. Before attempting to tackle this solo, consider the following:

  • The complexity of the eviction process in your jurisdiction
  • Your level of knowledge and experience
  • Your personality
  • Peculiarities in your state and local laws.

Complications can arise, and you might regret not hiring a pro. Expert legal advice is invaluable. For example, if a tenant files for bankruptcy during the eviction, bankruptcy court will place a stay on the eviction process. Your eviction is stopped until the stay is lifted, and you’ll definitely need an attorney.

Your knowledge and experience with the eviction process will also be a factor. You absolutely cannot walk into court unless you know what you are doing—it’s too easy to mess up. Once you have been through a few evictions, you may have enough experience to go it alone.

Your personality is also something to consider. Do you like speaking in front of other people? Do you enjoy confrontation—and do you handle it well? You must keep your cool at all costs. The last thing you want is to be held in contempt.

To find a good attorney, ask for references from other real estate investors. This is one of the benefits to jumping into the BiggerPockets Forums and building relationships. If you are a BiggerPockets Pro member, you can also use BiggerPockets Meet to find investors in any zip code in America, and send them a message asking for a referral to a good attorney.

How much does an eviction cost?

The state-required legal fees involved with an eviction case are fairly light—usually no more than a few hundred dollars. However, the attorney fees and lost rent kill your cash flow. You’ll likely spend between $1,500 and $3,000 on attorney’s costs, plus incur several months of lost rent and damages to the property. Cash for keys doesn’t sound so crazy now, does it?

Related: Breaking a Lease: What Landlords Should Know

How to Evict a Tenant: The Step-by-Step Eviction Process

At this point, you are ready to evict your tenant. This person has refused to pay or is completely unable to do so. As tough as it may sound, it’s time to begin the eviction process. Let’s walk though that process, step by step.

Step 1: Post or deliver the eviction notice

The first “legal” step in evicting a renter comes in the form of hand-delivering (serving) written notice of eviction to the tenant, letting them know of their grievance and what you are doing. The kind of notice served depends on your state and the eviction reason:

  • Pay or quit notice: If they are being evicted for past due rent rent, you will serve a “pay or vacate” notice, or a “pay or quit” notice. This notice says that they have a certain number of days—depending on state laws—to pay the rent or they will be evicted. The notice should also explain the rental amount due, along with any late fees or penalties.
  • Notice to comply: If they are being evicted for other reasons, such as violating the terms of their lease (they moved in a pet, late-night partying, etc.), this notice states that they have a certain number of days to rectify the situation or else be evicted.

In most states, proper notice can be taped to the door of the rental unit if no one answers. However, a copy of the notice should also be mailed to the tenant. (Make sure to send it certified with return receipt from the U.S. Postal Service.)

Be careful to follow your state’s exact rules in regard to how this notice must be served. In some states, like Washington, the owner of the property may not serve the legal notice themselves. Most states have specific notice periods, too. It’s a good idea to record the date and time that the notice was served and whether it was handed to an adult in the home or taped to the door.

Step 2: File for eviction

After the minimum number of days have passed, as defined by the notice you served, it’s time to move forward with an eviction lawsuit. If you hire an attorney, they will likely take over the eviction proceedings and let you get back to your life. Be sure to give your attorney:

  1. A copy of the tenant’s lease
  2. Copies of the notice that was served
  3. A brief summary of the situation.

If you plan to do the eviction yourself, the second step is to officially file the “unlawful detainer” lawsuit with your local courthouse.

Once filed, the court administrator will issue a court date for you and your tenant. Of course, if you are using an attorney, the attorney will show up in court. If you doing the eviction yourself, you will likely need to be present.

Step 3: Serve the lawsuit

Once the lawsuit has been filed in court and the court date is set, the tenant will be served the official “unlawful detainer” lawsuit. Most likely, this will need to be served by a third party. Deliver this lawsuit directly to the tenant.

Step 4: Attend the court hearing

When the court date comes, you will need to be prepared (or your attorney will need to be!). Make sure you bring with you:

Generally, if the tenant does not show up to court and doesn’t respond to the lawsuit, they automatically lose.

If the tenant does show up, the judge will hear both sides and rule either in the favor of the landlord or the tenant. If you lose the eviction… well, it sucks. It likely means you didn’t have all your paperwork in order, and you might have to start over at the beginning. However, if you did everything right and win, a judgment is issued against the tenant for the amount of money owed in rent, plus additional fees, such as court costs, attorney’s fees, late charges, and back rent.

Additionally, the court will order the tenant to vacate the premises within a certain number of days, depending on the state. This is done through a document known as a writ of restitution or writ of possession. This writ gives the landlord the legal right to remove the tenant. Usually the writ will allow the tenant a certain number of days—often between 24 hours and one week—to completely vacate.

Keep in mind, some Northern states ban evictions during the cold winter months. You can’t do much about this.

Step 5: Schedule with the sheriff

Once the tenant loses the eviction, the landlord (or attorney) will need to take the writ of restitution to the sheriff. You’ll have to pay another fee to the Sheriff and fill out some more forms before an eviction date will be set. The sheriff’s department will likely go to the home and post their own notice, giving a date and time that they will be at the home to remove the contents.

Step 6: Remove the tenant (with help)

Generally, the tenant will leave before the sheriff shows up, but it’s entirely possible that the tenant may still be there—and angry—when the sheriff arrives. Law enforcement’s job is to keep the peace and physically remove the tenant if needed, but it is not their job to remove the contents of the property. They will simply supervise you and your crew as you remove everything.

Here’s what to bring on eviction day:

  • People to pack, pick up and move: Remove all of your tenant’s personal property—down to the last fork. Unless you want to do this yourself, you’ll need movers. Don’t expect help from the sheriff. Bring at least two people—there’s always a mattress or some other large, cumbersome piece of furniture that needs to go.
  • Boxes and heavy-duty trash bags: Don’t expect your tenant to have everything neatly packaged. To keep things moving quickly, bring boxes and heavy-duty trash bags. These items will come in handy, especially when taking items like dishes, glasses and clothing to the curb.
  • A change of locks: Once all of the tenant’s belongings are gone, you have to change the locks. Don’t think that the tenant will be cooperative and return your keys.
    A camera: A camera or smartphone is a handy tool. Take video of the whole process in case there is some sort of court action later on.

Usually, you’ll place the tenant’s stuff on the nearest public roadway, but not always. The tenant can request that the landlord store their belongings (yes, really), so you may need to do so. Of course, the tenant would be required to pay for this, but there is no clear rule on when they need to pay for it. In reality, you may store their stuff indefinitely without reimbursement.

Related: Do Landlords Have to Allow Emotional Support Animals? Know the Laws

What Is a Self-Help Eviction?

In short: Not a good idea. A self-help eviction is illegal, and something you’ll want to avoid. If you try to kick out a tenant without following the proper procedure, they can take you to court—and will likely win. Here’s what landlords should never do:

  1. Lock the tenant out of the property. This is a big no-no. Without a court order, locking a tenant out of the property will not end well for you.
  2. Remove tenant belongings prior to an official eviction. Courts say this obstructs the tenants’ right to live in the property without harassment. Even if the tenant moved out prior to a scheduled eviction—but didn’t turn the keys over—don’t remove anything from the property.
  3. Do not turn off the utilities. Again, courts view this action in unfavorable terms.
  4. Do not intimidate or harass your tenants. While there may be a fine line for this scenario, remember: Just because the tenant is violating the lease doesn’t mean that you have legal carte blanch to make their life miserable.

Every action you take regarding a tenant must stand up the scrutiny of a judge.

How to Evict a Tenant Without a Rental Agreement

If you don’t have a rental agreement with your tenant, it is still possible to evict. Most states treat a tenant without a lease just like a tenant on a month-to-month lease. This can actually be a good thing: An eviction can be avoided by simply not “renewing” the month-to-month lease. In this case, ask the tenant (with a notice—usually 20 or 30 days) to vacate. Of course, if you have to evict without a rental agreement, bring every bit of paperwork you can to court.

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Note By BiggerPockets: These are opinions written by the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of BiggerPockets.