The Eviction Process: What Is It and How Does it Work?

FT Contributor  | 

When you rent an apartment, condo, or home, you’re entering into an agreement with the property owner in which you promise to pay the monthly rent and meet certain expectations regarding the use and care of the property. When you fail to uphold your end of the agreement, by not paying the rent on time, damaging the property, or violating other terms of the lease (such as having pets when they’re prohibited), the property owner has the legal right to force you to move out.

This is called an eviction, and in some cases, it can have a significant effect on your credit; in most if not all cases, it will hinder your ability to rent from different landlords in the future.

Although each state has its own specific laws regarding the eviction process, understanding how eviction works, in general, can help you avoid finding yourself out on the street.

Why Would a Landlord Evict a Tenant?

Landlords aren’t allowed to kick tenants out of the property for no reason. To evict you from the property, they must adhere to both the terms of your lease, which will specifically outline evictable offenses, and the applicable laws of your city and state.

That being said, most tenants who are evicted are asked to leave for one of the following reasons:  

Nonpayment of Rent

When you sign a lease, you agree to pay the monthly rent as agreed. This means paying the full amount, on the date it’s due, with the landlord’s preferred method of payment (e.g., check, direct debit from your account). If you do not pay your rent as agreed, the landlord is legally allowed to evict you.

Your lease will outline when nonpayment eviction proceedings can begin. Some landlords will allow a grace period for rent payments, or charge fees on late payments, and only resort to eviction when the rent goes unpaid past the grace period. Regardless of the individual policies, not paying your rent can, and most likely will, lead to eviction.

Lease Violation

Leases typically include a list of expectations and rules that you’re expected to abide by, and if you violate them, the landlord can evict you. Some common lease violations include:

  • Having pets when they aren’t allowed;
  • Smoking in a non-smoking property;
  • Unapproved occupants;
  • Subletting or renting rooms in the property (such as using a spare room for Airbnb);
  • Not maintaining the property as agreed;
  • Improper use, such as opening a business in a residential space;
  • Nuisance complaints;

In many cases, the landlord will give you the chance to correct these issues before beginning eviction proceedings. However, the owner does have the right to ask you to leave when you break the rules, so it’s best to comply with your lease.

Property Damage

Damaging your rental can also be a cause for eviction. Although landlords expect a certain amount of wear and tear, when you cause damage that’s expensive to fix, or renders the property beyond repair, you can be evicted. For example, you might think that putting a hot tub on the deck would be great, but if you don’t get permission and the weight of the tub ruins the deck, the landlord can evict you.

Illegal Activity Within the Home

Illegal activity can land you in hot water in any case, but when you commit crimes in a place you’re renting, it may also land you out on the street. Landlords have the right to evict tenants for illegal activity, including:

  • Dealing drugs from the property;
  • Using the property in the manufacture of illegal drugs; 
  • Prostitution;
  • Possession of stolen property on the premises;
  • Unlawful possession or use of a firearm;
  • Public indecency (in some states, like Texas);

In most states, the eviction process for illegal activity is much faster than for other offenses. Landlords can kick you out with only 24 hours (or less) notice if they have proof of certain crimes, like illegal drug activity.

End of Lease

When your lease term ends, the landlord can opt to not renew the contract, and you will be expected to move out. Your lease terms will outline the process of lease renewal, which will include clauses allowing you or the landlord to terminate the lease for any reason. If your landlord chooses not to renew the lease for any reason, you have to move. Although this isn’t technically an eviction in and of itself, if you don’t move out by the lease end date, you’ll be considered a squatter and the landlord can then evict you.

Eviction Notice

With the exception of evictions for illegal activity, landlords cannot simply tell you to move out of the property. They must follow a specific legal process in accordance with the provisions of your lease and local and state laws. These laws differ from state to state, but generally speaking, landlords must follow the same process.

This process begins with sending a written notification that they are beginning eviction proceedings, also known as a “Notice of Termination for Cause.”  This notice alerts you to the pending eviction and the reasons why. In most cases, this notice falls into one of three types: Pay Rent or Quit, Cure or Quit, or Unconditional Quit. The specific names of these notices vary by state, but the definitions are the same.

  1. Pay Rent or Quit notices are delivered when you haven’t paid the rent. Essentially, the notice gives you the opportunity to pay what you owe within a certain timeframe or move out. Usually, the rent must be paid within three to five days to avoid eviction.
  1. A Cure or Quit notice gives you the opportunity to correct a lease violation before the eviction process begins. For instance, you might need to rehome a pet or clean up the yard in order to stay. These notices may give you anywhere from 24 hours to 30 days to correct the problem.
  1. If you receive an Unconditional Quit notice, there’s nothing you can do but move out, or else you’ll face court proceedings. These notices are usually delivered after repeated violations, chronic late payments, or in cases of illegal activity. These notices can require you to leave immediately, or may give you several weeks to move out.

Generally speaking, landlords cannot force tenants to leave without cause. In some places, landlords can evict renters who do not have a fixed-term lease (tenants at will)  without cause. Still, the landlord should provide adequate notice, usually 30 or 60 days. However, eviction without cause is not legal in many cities, including San Francisco and New York, where landlords can only evict tenants for a specific reason. This may open the door to “squatters rights.”

If you do not correct the problems or move out after receiving an eviction notice, the landlord can file a lawsuit to force you to leave. If this occurs, you may be able to successfully argue for your right to stay. For instance, if you withheld paying rent because the landlord did not complete necessary repairs or failed to uphold their end of the agreement in some way, the judge may rule in your favor. However, if you do not have evidence of wrongdoing on the part of the landlord, the judge will likely order you to leave the property within a specified timeframe.

Keep in mind that if your lease has a rent-to-own option, and you are planning to buy the house at some point, an eviction will nullify that contract and the option to buy will most likely no longer apply.

How an Eviction Affects Your Credit

If your landlord receives a judgment in court forcing you to leave, the information about the judgment will be reported to the three major credit bureaus, and appear in the public information section of your credit report. This information can remain for up to seven years, and will lower your credit score. In addition, if you fail to pay the landlord what you owe, the account can be turned over to a collection agency, which will report the debt to the credit bureaus as well.

Unfortunately, it’s extremely difficult to remove a judgment from your credit report until the statute of limitations expires, although the credit bureau will mark it as paid if you repay the debt. During that period, it may be more difficult to rent another property. Even though your credit report itself may not specifically state “eviction,” if the judgment is for a property management company, landlords will read between the lines. Some landlords also report renter information to the credit bureaus’ renter screening services, which will reveal your eviction history.

You can mitigate some of the damage by paying what you owe to the landlord, even if you leave before the eviction goes to court. Your credit report will reflect the paid judgment, and as time goes by, the impact on your credit score will diminish.

You should also do everything you can to avoid being evicted. Adhering to the terms of your lease is obviously the best way to avoid getting kicked out, but if you run into trouble, talk with your landlord and try to work out an agreement before you fall behind and risk eviction.

There are options for help if you are low-income and need assistance paying for a place to live. If you’re constantly in danger of not being able to pay your rent, look for ways to bring in some extra cash, or consider moving to a more affordable or rent-free home to protect your credit history and give yourself more breathing room.

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