Facing eviction? Chances are, you've seen it coming for a while. Maybe tension between you and your landlord is at an all-time high, or you're running a few months late on rent, or they finally got wind of your banned-per-your-lease puppy. You're not alone -- it happened to 3.4 million tenants in 2014.
Whatever the reason, your landlord can't just show up one day and dump your things in the street -- there's a legally determined process for evicting a tenant.
First of all, be sure that your landlord's gripe legally qualifies as grounds for eviction. What valid grounds entail varies slightly from state to state -- here is a general resource to consult for rules, although we recommend getting in touch with a lawyer or your local tenants' organization -- but most evictions occur due to either nonpayment of rent or breaching the lease.
Here's what to expect if you're getting evicted.
Step 1: First notice
If your landlord tries to force you out by changing the locks or shutting off your utilities, stand your ground.
"There has to be notice given," says Sandy LeVan, a housing counselor for the United Tenants of Albany, who acts as a mediator in court. "The landlord can never take matters into their own hands."
That notice comes in a few forms:
- 30-day notice to vacate, which can be issued without cause on a month-to-month lease. If you don't comply, further eviction proceedings will occur.
- Pay rent or quit notice, which (depending on your state) gives three to five days to pay rent or get out.
- Cure or quit notice -- like the pay rent or quit notice, this gives you a few days to stop violating the conditions of your lease.
- Unconditional quit notice, which requires the tenant to leave immediately.
Step 2: Summons
If you don't follow the terms of the notice, things get murkier. Generally, a landlord will serve you with an official summons to bring you to eviction court. There, you'll have the opportunity to argue your case in front of a judge. Most of the time, you'll receive either a monetary judgment or an eviction order.
"Don't ignore the court papers," LeVan says. "Don't blow it off. You can go and defend yourself." She recommends calling the local bar association, legal aid, or tenant's rights organizations, which can provide mediation and advocacy in court.
Step 3: Court
Outside help is your best chance of fighting the eviction, but if that's truly a luxury you cannot afford -- and, if you're behind on rent, it very well might be -- bring any supporting documents to court and spend some time formulating your argument. (Pine Tree Legal Assistance offers a comprehensive list of winning arguments.)
If you were withholding rent for a valid reason, like the landlord not making necessary repairs, you may have a strong argument in court. Even if it's just life that's keeping you from paying rent -- you lost your job and unemployment is taking a while to come in -- tell your story to the court.
Step 4: The judge's decision
"The judge listens to both sides," LeVan says. "Sometimes, courts will work out payment plans and hold off evictions as long as payments are made. No one is trying to make anyone homeless."
These payment plans are far superior to eviction, so if you're offered one, take it without hesitation. But say you do lose: Either you're ordered to pay back rent or the landlord gets the eviction order -- or both.
If the court issued just an order for money, there are sources that can help you. Don't give up just because the amount you owe seems overwhelming.
"Social services is the first place to go to," says LeVan. If you're working or have a job lined up, often they'll provide help paying back rent. Otherwise, your local legal aid society and tenants' organizations might be able to assist.
Step 5: The eviction
Your landlord can't evict you himself: Your local sheriff or marshal will come by to escort you from the property. "It's not a comfortable thing," LeVan says. "The sheriffs change the locks, the kids are crying, and it's always very stressful." Typically, you'll have some notice before law enforcement comes -- most experts recommend leaving of your own volition beforehand to avoid the stress.
What happens next?
Unfortunately, an eviction can affect your job and apartment search, as well as your credit score. Many states have searchable eviction databases that landlords and employers can access, and your credit report will register on the public record as a ding on your account.
"It doesn't mean the tenant was wrong," LeVan says. "We always caution landlord that the record doesn't mean you'll be a bad tenant." Maybe you were withholding rent but agreed to leave -- it still shows up the same way. If this is your situation, keeping thorough records of the case can help if you need to prove your trustworthiness to an employer or future landlord.
How to avoid eviction
When you're first served notice, comply immediately. If possible, pay back rent (with the help of legal aid, if necessary); stop violating the lease; and, if a 30-day notice is served, use that time to arrange housing so you won't overstay your lease.
If your credit has been dinged, be prepared for a few tough years on the rental markets. You may have to pay higher security deposits or more in rent, or work with a rental brokerage service. But even in the worst circumstances, an eviction isn't life or death -- you can get through it with your dignity intact.
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