It's common sense to issue a contract whenever you rent a property to a tenant, but sometimes "loopholes" occur that leave you in a difficult situation. Perhaps the tenant on the official lease vacated the premises, leaving behind a roommate who never signed the rental contract. Maybe it's your roommate who's refusing to leave the property you own, or the lease expired without an automatic renewal or transition to a month-to-month agreement.
Without proper contracts and documentation, an eviction can unravel into a "their word against yours" scenario, but it's never too late to get your paperwork in order and handle the eviction legally and with civility.
Check Your Perfectly-Organized Records
OK, let's be realistic. Unless you're using a dedicated software program designed for rental property management, it can take a while to find all your paperwork. Has the tenant been paying rent with a check or through other traceable means? Do you have any written agreements between you and your tenant? These can be hand-written promises, or e-mails in which you imply, with reason, that you're allowing the tenant (or your friend) to move in. Any documented evidence of an agreement is holds far more weight than a handshake deal. Sadly, in the eyes of the law, one's "word" just doesn't cut it anymore.
While you're at it, look for anything that verifies your tenant's move-in date. You'll also want to think of any contributions the tenant has made to renovations and repairs, and be prepared for them to use the receipts as records... and even sue for compensation.
What Are Your Local Laws?
A person renting your property outside of a contract is called a "Tenant at Will." States vary widely on legal eviction protocols, and you'll want to know how much notice you're required to give... and how the circumstances may impact notice periods, which may be as short as three or as long as 60 days. The method by which you're required to deliver the notice can be tricky, and one false step can give your tenant leverage in a court of law. VerticalRent offers state-by-state guides to its members, or you can invest in a consultation with an attorney who specializes in your city and state's tenancy laws.
Another good resource is your local County Clerk, who can help you understand local laws and judicial attitudes.
What's Your Reason for the Eviction? Can You Skip the Formalities?
Now that you know your legal footing, you have the confidence and ability to explore your options. Does the tenant or roommate have a history of hostility or aggression? Have they already expressed their intention to dig in their heels? Regardless of your relationship with this person or experience with their past behavior, you need to be prepared to issue formal notification... but from here forward, the eviction process can take different paths.
Lawyers might cringe at what we're going to say, but sometimes the legal process itself can require complicated solutions from otherwise simple situations. If the tenant or roommate has no idea you want them to leave, you can simply reach out and let them know.
If they're receptive to the announcement, explain to them that, as a formality, you'll need to serve them notice. Explain to them how much time they have to vacate the premises, and discuss your expectations for the condition in which you expect them to leave the property. Sometimes, a little humanity can keep a decent tenant from going on the defensive; just take care to be firm, even if their personal situation appeals to your sense of generosity.
This might not be the best course of action if you're evicting a tenant due to failure to pay rent or their abuse of the property. Following "stone-cold" formal eviction procedures is your best option for recovering damages if you expect any sort of hostile pushback.
When It's Time to "Go There": Starting The Eviction Process
When your Andy Griffith approach isn't working out, its time for Matlock. Well, sort of, anyway; the main character is a homicide defense attorney after all. But work with us here; the point is, you need to carry out your eviction so that it will hold up in court.
Compose & send your "Notice to Quit" letter
Use a business template—with the correct headings and format—to write your letter, stating how many days the tenant has to vacate the premises. If the law requires you to do so, briefly provide your reason for the eviction.
Your letter must include the tenant's full name, the complete address of the unit, and both the date it was written and that by which the tenant is expected to "quit" the premises. Be sure to type your full name and sign the letter, and make a copy for your own files. It's a good idea to include a copy of the original lease, if there is one, or at least the wording that relates to your expectations of a vacated unit in good condition.
If you are permitted by law to send the notice via USPS, be sure you send it a few days early so it's delivered when you intend for the notice period to start. (It's also a good idea to use certified mail with delivery confirmation.) You may also be required to hand-deliver a copy, or post it to the unit's front door. Double check the laws!
Wait for your tenant to respond (or leave)
Nobody wants an eviction on their record, so chances are, your tenant will comply with standard move-out procedures. Sometimes, though, tenants might drag their heels. They may have no place to go, they're broke, or they're just plain contentious.
Dealing with a non-compliant tenant
NEVER try to forcibly remove a tenant, shut off their utilities, or change the locks. Go to your local courthouse and file for a petition for eviction the moment the notice period expires. Local law dictates how the petition (and associated summons) should be served upon the tenant, but we recommend hiring an official process server, or asking if a sheriff's deputy is available for the task.
Avoid any interaction with the tenant until you see them in court.
Next, there will be a court hearing; this can be days, weeks or even months away depending on your location, and some "squatter" tenants take advantage of this delay. Bring your records with you. Chances are, the law will settle in your favor and the judge will issue you a formal eviction order which a local law enforcement official (usually a Sheriff's deputy) will serve to the tenant. The officer will handle the eviction, likely by escorting the tenant and their belongings from the property. Be sure to ask in advance what to expect, however, because each jurisdiction has its own procedures.
If the judge finds in the tenant's favor, it's time for you to obtain an attorney.
Preventing Future Evictions
Do you wish you had access to sample contracts, research sources, and tenant screening tools to help you avoid eviction drama in the future? Do you need to re-evaluate your recordkeeping system? Rental property management is a business, whether you're renting out a spare room or multi-unit apartment buildings. VerticalRent will help you stay organized—and legally compliant—so you can manage your risk as easily as you manage your investments.
About the author
Matt Angerer is the Founder and President of VerticalRent. He enjoys writing on a variety of topics that help Landlords, Property Managers, and Renters across America. He is particularly interested in helping renters understand their local marketplace, pick the best places to live, and find an awesome roommate. Since 2011, VerticalRent has grown to service over 100,000 landlords and renters across America.