It’s not uncommon for residential landlord and tenants to have disagreements, even conflicts, about things like the timely payment of rent, or wanting to end the lease early. But, as a landlord, you have remedies for almost every disagreement or dispute you might have with tenants.

For the most part, your remedies depend on:

  • The nature or reason for the dispute
  • Whether the tenant is still on the leased premises

Also, it’s critical that you understand the landlord-tenant laws in your area, which usually tell you exactly what you can and can’t do in a dispute with your tenant. And, because these laws vary from state to state, and even city to city, and because they are sometimes complicated, it’s not uncommon for landlords to get help from an experienced real estate lawyer.

Eviction: The Ultimate Remedy

Eviction is the ultimate remedy. It’s where you take legal action to terminate or cancel the lease, and if the tenant doesn’t leave after a court orders him or her to do so, then the tenant can be forcibly removed from the property by a local sheriff. Eviction is also commonly referred to as “forcible entry and detainer,” “unlawful entry and detainer ,” or “unlawful detainer.”

State laws usually have strict requirements on how and for what reasons a tenant can be evicted. Generally, you have to give notice to the tenant of the eviction and then file a lawsuit. Some of the most common reasons for evictions are the tenant’s failure to pay rent or conducting criminal activity on the premises, like growing or selling illegal drugs.

Tenant on the Premises

In most states, if a tenant breaches or violates an important provision of the lease, such as failing to keep his or premises clean, you must give the tenant a written notice that explains the problem and gives the tenant a certain period of time, typically 10-15 days, to fix it. The notice can also state that if it’s not fixed within that time, the lease will be terminated.

If the tenant is disrupting other renters’ use or enjoyment of the premises, such as by playing loud music in the late evening, you can give the tenant notice of the problem and, if the tenant doesn’t stop the behavior within a certain amount of time, typically 30-60 days, you can get an injunction-or a court order requiring the tenant to stop. In some states you can also terminate the lease with proper notice to the tenant.

If the tenant remains on the premises after the lease term has expired (called “holding over”), in some states you can start eviction proceedings immediately. In other states, you have to give the tenant notice to “quit” or leave the premises. Depending on the state, the notice period can be anywhere from 10 to 30 days. If the tenant does not leave within that time, you can begin eviction proceedings.

You have to be careful here. If your tenant is holding over and he or she pays and you accept rent, then in most states you can’t begin eviction proceedings immediately. Rather, you have to give the tenant notice, usually 30 days, to quit the premises.

In most states, once the lease has been terminated, you have the right to retake possession of the premises and/or demand any past-due rent. Of course, you also have the tenant’s security deposit , which can help you recoup at least some of your losses.

The Tenant’s Gone

Generally, your tenant is bound by the term or length of the lease, and if he or she wants to break the lease early or if the tenant just leaves without telling you, he or she is still responsible for the rent for the balance or remainder of the lease term.

In many states, a tenant can break a lease early for “good cause,” such health problems or your failure to keep the premises safe and livable. In such instances, the tenant might be excused from having to pay you rent for the unfinished term of the lease.

If the tenant leaves the premises early and without good cause (which is called “surrender” or “abandonment”), then the tenant is liable for the rent for the entire lease term. However, in most states, you have to make good faith efforts to rent the property to someone else for the remainder of the surrendering tenant’s lease term. If you’re successful in finding a new tenant:

  • Some states will make the old tenant liable only for rent he or she failed to pay while on the premises
  • In other states, the old tenant is liable for the difference between his or rent and the rent being paid by the new tenant (if the new tenant’s rent is less than the old tenant’s rent)

In almost all states, if you can’t find a new renter, the tenant is liable for all rent under the lease.

In many states, if a tenant surrenders the premises, you have an obligation to keep and hold the tenant’s personal property for a period of time, typically 7 to 10 days. You can’t hold the tenant’s property “hostage” by not letting the tenant have it unless he or she pays past-due.

Some Things You Can’t Do

You need to be careful when trying to resolve a dispute yourself. If a tenant is not paying rent or is damaging the property, you can’t change the locks in the premises (“lock-out”) and you can’t turn off the water or heat (“freeze-out”), or even threaten to do so, in an effort to get the tenant to pay the rent or leave the premises. If you do, you could be liable for any damages or injuries suffered by the tenant, as well as his or attorney’s fees.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • My tenant signed a one-year lease, from January 1st to December 31st. In August he just disappeared and didn’t pay rent for that month. I rented it out in September. In that same month, the old tenant returned and demanded that I let him back on the premises. What can I do?
  • How much will an eviction proceeding cost and how long will it take?
  • If my tenant owes me 3 months rent and clearly has no means of paying me, is it worth going to court and suing him for the unpaid rent after I evict him? Why can’t I keep and sell his furniture to pay for the rent?
  • My tenant left early and I was able to re-rent the premises, but at a much lower rate because of the drastic change in the housing market. In our area, what can I recover from the old tenant?