How do I evict a tenant?

I’m going to start this off by saying first and foremost evicting a tenant should always be a last resort. The court system is notoriously slow, inefficient, and depending on your location can be anything from inconvenient to really unfair to a landlord.  Your focus to avoid eviction should revolve around attempting to avoid bad tenants before they move in through proper screening and requirements, take fast action against tenants in default by contacting them as soon as they are in default and demanding the default being resolved immediately, and not delaying before filing for eviction if all else fails.

I’ve written articles previously about the importance of tenant screening and what you should be looking for to avoid a bad tenant, so I won’t speak in depth about that topic here.  Taking immediate action against a tenant is one of many things that many landlords, especially amateur landlords, fail to do.  Many landlords prefer to avoid the confrontation, which I can relate to, however avoiding the problem will only make it worse, and more common in most cases.

For the properties that I manage (including the ones I own) rent is due on the first, and tenants that haven’t paid are contacted before 9:00am on the 2nd, even when it falls on a weekend or holiday.  This is an important part of our tenant training process, so that they realize that rent is due when it’s due and there are no exceptions to the rules.  This sets tenant expectations at a realistic level, and there is no reason for them to be surprised by the rent reminder, or the corresponding late fees.  If you delay in contacting late tenants, they will become more complacent, and over time the rents will come in later and later every month, which is a problem.

For the properties that I manage, if a tenant hasn’t responded to our contact informing us of when the rent will be paid, or if they aren’t able to pay the rent before the 5th of the month we will inform them that we will have to file the eviction suit, but as long as they pay on the date they’ve stated (assuming that it’s within a few weeks of the 1st) they should be fine.  I also inform them of the fact that they will be responsible for the court costs and an eviction service fee for us compiling and filing the paperwork.  This process serves two purposes: 1) It reinforces how important timely payments are, and 2) it reinforces that there are real consequences to late payments and that they are expensive. For our tenants, if paying their rent on time isn’t already their first financial priority, it quickly will become that after they move in.  This is one of the reasons our rentals perform better than similar properties in our area.

This part is extremely important: when you tell a tenant that you’re filing for eviction on a certain date, follow through with that.  For longer term tenants I may give them a day or two notice before it’s filed so that they have time to find the money if possible, especially if they have rarely been late in the past.

Depending on your municipality timeframes and options for landlords can vary widely.  You will need to find out what the requirements are for serving notice to tenants including how they should be served, what information they should receive, and most importantly what the timeframe required is between notice and filing.  In Louisiana (where my business and rentals are located) it is possible to waive the notice period with a short clause in the lease.  If that is possible in your location I highly recommend it.  Without a lease waiver we would be required to serve notice 5 business days prior to being able to file the suit for eviction.  Those 5 days exclude the day the notice is posted and any weekend or holiday days.  This means it could take upwards of 8-10 days depending on the time of year, and in rental real estate time is literally money, so you should avoid unnecessary delays at all costs.

After you’ve filed for the eviction the tenant should be served with a legal notice of suit, advising them of the date and time to appear in court if they’d like to present their defense.  Depending on the local landlord laws tenants may or may not usually show up to court (bad tenants tend to know the relevant laws much better than many landlords and they generally know their odds better than you will).  If they don’t show up in court AND your paperwork is all in order, you should receive a default judgement of possession of the property.  If the tenant does show up to court they will be given the opportunity to present their case for why they shouldn’t be evicted (often totally irrelevant, ie: lost my job, kid was sick, etc).  Assuming there isn’t a problem with you complying with the laws and requirements/timeframes/paperwork, and the tenant doesn’t have a relevant response to the suit, you should still be awarded possession to the property.  If there is some reason that the judge can find you non-compliant or can deny you the eviction for some other legal reason they will, and in that case you’ll have to start the eviction process all over again.  Some locations have such complicated requirements that you may be better off by hiring an attorney to complete the process for you to ensure that you don’t lose that much more rent by making a simple mistake and having to start over.

Depending on the local laws you may be entitled to possession of the property as soon as immediately, and in other cases as long as 28 days or longer.  In my part of Louisiana it’s 24 hours after the judgement before you’re entitled to possession.  But please be careful here, just because you’ve been awarded possession doesn’t mean you can just change the locks and kick the tenants out if they’re still living in the home.  At this point, you can only reclaim possession if It’s abundantly clear that the tenants have moved out.  You will want to document things like no beds in the bedrooms, no clothes in the closets, no dishes in the cabinets, etc just in case the tenant decides they want to sue you at some later period for anything related to the eviction.  Even if the home is totally empty you’ll still want to document that fact.

If the home has any property left in it you are required to take actions to ensure that the tenant is able to reclaim that property if they want.  In some states/areas you may be required to store the belongings for some extended period of time (30-90 days!) unless the tenant informs you directly of it being disposable (get it in writing).  In many areas the only requirement may be to drop it at the curb for 24 hours or so.  At no time would you want to immediately take possession of the property in the home, unless the tenant has advised it is disposable.

For the properties that we manage we notify the tenant of the property being removed and available at the curb.  If the furniture is particularly nice or potentially valuable we may store it for 30 days and make every reasonable effort to notify the tenant of it’s availability.  Depending on your area you may be able to recover the cost of storage, moving, etc and potentially even the total balance owed by the tenant before you release the belongings!  Where possible we often donate abandoned furniture and belongings to local charities.

If the tenant HASN’T clearly moved out of the property after the court judgement, you’ll need to contact your local clerk of court (or other relevant authority) for the next step.  In most areas a constable or marshall will assist in the physical removal of a tenant.  They will provide security for you to bring a crew in and remove all the belongings from the home and change the locks.  This is not a common occurrence in most areas, but every once in a while you’ll have a delusional or incredibly irresponsible tenant that will just refuse to leave.  Usually the marshall or constable will attempt to contact them before you show up to remove them to avoid that very bad situation.

Overall the eviction process doesn’t work out well for anyone.  We always attempt to take a proactive approach by contacting a tenant by phone, mail, email, notes posted to the door, etc advising them of the totally avoidable fallout of allowing their eviction to proceed to a court ruling.  Usually when you explain the costs involved, including collections, etc, and how it will negatively affect all of their future housing needs and make them more expensive at a minimum, they will agree to move out and hand over the keys before the court date.  I would recommend always attempting to communicate with them in writing so there can be no confusion or miscommunication about what you’re agreeing to.

Under no circumstances should you agree to accepting any partial payment or delayed payment during the eviction process.  If you accept a payment from them, even if it isn’t paid in full, between the eviction notice/filing and the court date the judge will likely deny the eviction.  You will be under oath during the court process, so make sure you can honestly say that you haven’t agreed to any exceptions for the tenant at any point along the way.

I hope this information helps you in your real estate investing journey.  Many landlords with decent quality rentals and good screening and processes will never have to deal with an eviction, but that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be well informed about the process.  If you’re a landlord or hope to be one in the future I highly recommend you find out who the legal authority is in your area that would handle an eviction, what the exact process is and requirements/costs/expected timeline.  Preparation will help you avoid this huge downside to real estate investing.