Real Estate

Landlords' Remedies in Disputes with Tenants

By Marcia Stewart, Co-Author of Nolo's Essential Guide to Buying Your First Home and Every Landlord's Legal Guide
Ending a tenancy and evicting a tenant requires using the proper forms and following specific state procedures. Here’s how to do it right.

It’s not uncommon for residential landlord and tenants to have disagreements, even conflicts, around issues involving rent, landlord entry to rental premises, noise, repair problems, or security deposit deductions. Your options will vary depending on the specifics of the dispute, including whether or not the tenant is still on the leased premises, whether the tenant has given you proper notice to end the tenancy (or simply broken the lease), and other factors.

In some situations, such as a conflict over noise, your best option may be to give the tenant a warning notice and try to negotiate an agreement, rather than immediately head to court. In others—for example, a tenant who has not paid the rent or otherwise violates your lease or the law—you’ll want the tenant out.

To head off disputes with tenants, it’s crucial that you understand and comply with the landlord-tenant laws in your state, and any local rules, such as rent control, which may apply to your rental property. State and local laws will often spell out exactly what landlords can and can’t do in a particular dispute with tenants. For example, nearly all states set specific rules and procedures for evicting a tenant for nonpayment of rent and prohibit landlord self-help remedies to get a tenant out. Because landlord-tenant laws vary from state to state, and even city to city, and because they are often complicated, it’s not uncommon for landlords to get help from an experienced landlord-tenant lawyer.

Termination of a Tenancy: The First Step Toward an Eviction

In most states, you may terminate a month-to-month tenancy by giving the tenant the proper amount of notice (usually 30 days), and no reasons are required (the exception would be some rent control cities which require a legally recognized reason, or just cause, for the landlord to end the tenancy). Fixed-term leases expire on their own at the end of the lease term, and you can’t ask the tenant to leave before then unless the tenant violates a major lease term, such as by failing to pay the rent or damaging the rental unit.

In cases where the tenant has done something wrong eviction is the ultimate remedy. But to begin with, you must first legally terminate the tenancy—this involves sending the tenant a notice stating that the tenancy is over and that you will file an eviction lawsuit if the tenant doesn’t leave. Most states set out very specific requirements for terminating a tenancy, including how and when termination notices must be written and delivered.

Depending on the situation and your state law, you may need to first give the tenant a few days to correct the problem or leave. In California, for example, you must give a tenant who is late paying rent a “pay rent or quit” notice, giving the tenant three days to pay the rent or leave (“quit”). In a few states, such as Ohio, you may simply give the late rent-paying tenant three days to move out of the rental unit (called an “unconditional quit” notice). Ohio landlords are not obligated to accept rent payments once the tenant has received this notice; if the tenant does not move out of the Ohio rental unit, you can then file an eviction lawsuit with the court.

Depending on your state, you may have a choice among a few different types of notices, and it’s crucial that you understand your state law rules and procedures for ending a tenancy to avoid legal problems.

Eviction: The Ultimate Remedy

If the tenant hasn’t left and hasn’t reformed (if that was even an option) after you’ve properly terminated the tenancy, you’ll need to file an eviction (commonly referred to as an unlawful detainer or UD) lawsuit. An eviction involves going to court and proving that the tenant did something wrong that justifies ending the tenancy. State laws usually specify the reasons that justify eviction of a tenant (such as tenant failure to pay rent or illegally selling drugs on the rental premises), and set out specific procedures as to how and when eviction papers must be written and served on tenants.

If you win the eviction lawsuit, the court will order the tenant to leave. If the tenant fails to leave, you must follow legally proscribed steps—this typically involves hiring the sheriff or marshal to move the tenant and his or her belongings out of the rental.

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.

What You Can’t Do When Terminating a Tenancy

If you fail to follow state rules and procedures exactly, you may experience delays in evicting your tenant or perhaps even lose your lawsuit. And you certainly can’t change the locks in the premises (“lock-out”) or turn off the water or heat (“freeze-out”), or even threaten to do so, in an effort to get a tenant to leave the premises. These kind of self-help eviction remedies or similar short-cuts are illegal and may result in a court finding you liable for any damages, monetary losses, or injuries suffered by the tenant, as well as his or attorney’s fees.

Also, many states have specific laws as to how you must handle or dispose of any property left behind by a tenant—whether the tenant has left voluntarily or not. See Handling a Tenant’s Abandoned Property on for details.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • I just found out that my tenant has a dog, even though her lease specifically prohibits pets. I’d like to keep the tenant, but not the dog. What should I do?
  • How much will an eviction proceeding cost and how long will it take?
  • If my tenant owes me three 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?
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This article was verified by:
Arnold Warren Drucker | May 14, 2015
37-06 82nd Street
Jackson Heights,NY
(718) 458-2312 View Profile

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