First, don’t make a move without speaking with legal counsel or at least developing a solid understanding of tenants’ rights in your jurisdiction. Laws can vary significantly from state to state, and even from city to city.
A few basic principles, to keep you out of trouble:
- You cannot unilaterally simply change the locks, nor just shut off utilities,without a court order.
- You cannot seize a tenant’s property without a court order. That includes furniture, clothing or belongings.
- You cannot cut off utilities if the tenant has the utility account in his or her name (though some exceptions apply for emergency gas leaks, fire hazards, flood hazards and the like)
- You must provide formal, written notice of the intent to evict.
What you can evict for:
First, understand the two broad categories of tenants: At-will tenants and leaseholders. In either case, you should absolutely have a written agreement detailing the circumstances that may give you the right to evict prior to the end of the lease. If you do have a written lease, then that lease is the governing document.
An at-will tenant typically pays week-to-week or month-to-month. Generally speaking, you can move these tenants out by providing them a 30-day or 60-day notice to quit, depending on the state. For at will tenants, these 30-day or 60-day notices can be for almost any reason, or no reason at all. (Caveat: The quit notice cannot specify a date prior to the last date for which your tenants have paid rent. If they paid two months in advance, your notice to quit must not specify a date before the expiration of the second month. If they are real problem tenants, though, the general rule is that you can issue them a seven-day notice to quit. The seven-day notice is limited, though, to a few specific and egregious circumstances:
- Non-payment of rent (generally delinquent more than seven days).
- Nuisance or danger to neighbors/other tenants
- Property damage (and failure to repair said damage)
- Rendering the unit unlivable
- Changing the locks and refusing to give the landlord or his representative the key.
The most obvious examples are non-payment of rent, violation of your pet policy, failure to upkeep, repeated violations of noise ordinances, damage to the property, drugs or criminal behavior on the premises, and the like.
If there is a lease in place, signed by both you or your representative and the tenant, then the lease is the governing document.
In some areas, rent control laws may restrict your ability to evict except for specific reasons. If you are in an area that enforces rent controls, contact a local attorney before initiating eviction procedures.
What you can’t evict for:
Under federal law, for example, you cannot evict a tenant or discriminate in any way based on federally-protected categories:
- Age (except for certain age-restricted communities)
- National origin
- Disabilities (See the Americans with Disabilities Act)
- Familial status (including children under the age of 18 living with parents or legal custodians, pregnant women, and people securing custody of children under the age of 18). For specifics, see the Fair Housing Act, among other laws.
You cannot generally discriminate against or single out single mothers or families with children for eviction.. Additionally, if your tenant has been ordered to active duty in the Armed Forces of the United States, you may have your ability to evict them substantially curtailed without a court order, due to the Soldiers and Sailors Civil Relief Act. See an attorney before proceeding. Furthermore, your state or city may specify additional classes you are not allowed to discriminate against, such as sexual orientation. The American Civil Liberties Union publishes as state-by-state guide to sexual orientation discrimination laws here.
States that prohibit discrimination based on sexual origin and gender identity:
- District of Columbia
- New Hampshire
- New Jersey
- New Mexico
- Rhode Island
States that prohibit discrimination on sexual orientation:
Cities that prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation:
Note: Laws applying specifically to transgenders vary, even among these jurisdictions. Consult a local attorney before making a move if this could be an issue.
You cannot conduct a retaliatory eviction. For example, you cannot single out a tenant for eviction because of reasons like these:
- They filed a housing discrimination complaint,
- They requested in writing that you make a necessary repair
- They reported you for code violations and the like,
- They were were active in forming a tenant’s union.
Source of income
Some jurisdictions prohibit discrimination against source of income, such as public assistance:
Writing about personal finance and investments since 1999, Jason Van Steenwyk started as a reporter with Mutual Funds Magazine and served as editor of Investors’ Digest. He now publishes feature articles in many publications including Annuity Selling Guide, Bankrate.com, and more.