Non-paying tenants are more than an irritation they’re stealing from you. They are living on your property for free. It’s understandable to be angry and want to do something now. But don’t do it. It is very important that you follow the proper legal process for evicting a tenant, or you could be in big trouble.

There are many pitfalls in evicting a tenant. The law makes you jump through many hoops. You cannot lock your tenants out, you cannot put their furniture in the street, and you cannot harass them into moving. If you violate these rules, you will find yourself in the even-worse situation of having to pay damages to your non-paying tenant. Imagine how much madder that will make you.

When you have a non-paying tenant you must act like that disappointed adult: calm, collected, rational, and mature. Then you must figure out the proper hoops to jump through to get them to pay or get them out. A “Notice to Quit or Pay Rent” is the next step. This can be a 3-day, 30-day or 60-day notice, depending on the circumstance. The notice needs to be served on the personally. In other words: hand it to them. Or hand it to a person in the apartment over 18. You cannot just “nail and mail.” What that means is that you first have to try to serve them personally. If, after a few attempts, they don’t respond, you can post it on their door and mail them a copy. You’d rather not do this because the first thing your delinquent tenants are going to do is complain that they were never served. So you want to make sure you serve them personally. Also, if you are rent controlled, there are other forms you have to file.

If the number of days required in the notice passes and the tenants haven’t paid their rent or moved out, then you may file a lawsuit for eviction called an “unlawful detainer.” The forms for filing an unlawful detainer are available on the court’s website. The court issues a summons, which must be served personally served on the tenants by a neutral party who is not you.

Once the tenant is served, they have 5 days to respond. If they don’t respond, you may seek a default. If they do respond, trial is set within 20 days. When the trial date arrives, the judge (or usually a commissioner) gives the landlord and tenant a chance to meet a reach a settlement. This is very common and your best option. Usually the settlement is an agreement for the tenants to move by a certain date. In return, you agree to keep the eviction off their record. If you don’t reach a settlement, then you have to try the case. Trying the case means proving to the judge that the tenants haven’t paid and are there illegally. If you win, the judge enters a judgment for possession. You then have to file the proper paperwork with the sheriff’s department to show up and properly kick them out. The sheriff’s department is very busy, and it could be weeks before they show up. When they do, the sheriff orders them out of the property, removes their furniture, and has the locks changed.

In one sense this sounds pretty simple, but making sure you’ve given the proper notice, filled out the correct forms, served the tenants legally, and tried your case, could get very complicated. Avoid the pitfalls and hire an attorney!

It’s just not worth it trying to do this yourself and making a mistake. A mistake will cost you time, money, and possibly damages. Hiring an attorney is worth the cost.

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The above is for informational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Please seek advice from counsel.