Eviction isn't a fast process. The FindLaw website estimates eviction can take, on average, five weeks to three months. The lack of speed is the result of the legal procedures a landlord has to follow before evicting a tenant. The exact timetable varies according to state and local law.
With or Without Cause
Each state sets its own rules for the eviction process. Generally landlords can ask a tenant to leave for cause, or evict without cause in some instances. In eviction without cause, the landlord can, for example, ask a month-to-month tenant to leave at the end of a rental period. The landlord usually can't wait until the day before to do this, however. In California, for instance, the tenant gets 30 or 60 days notice.
If a tenant fails to pay rent, breaks the lease or otherwise gives the landlord cause for eviction, the landlord can order her out before the lease or rental period expires. However if the tenant can fix the problem -- for example by making up the back rent -- she may be able to avoid eviction.
Cities with rent control, such as San Francisco, don't usually allow landlords to evict a tenant without cause from a rent-controlled apartment.
If the landlord wants to end a rental agreement, he first must notify the renter. If the issue is back rent, for instance, the landlord has to deliver a pay rent or quit notice. To be valid, the notice must be in writing, meet state requirements and be delivered in accordance with state law. Typically the landlord can mail it, hand-deliver it, or or leave it prominently visible at the rental.
The amount of notice required depends on the state. If the issue is unpaid rent, it's common to give the tenant three to five days to pay or leave. However Massachusetts requires 14 days, or 30 days for any different cause.
A tenant who can't fix the problem or doesn't want to pay the rent may pack up and leave before the notice period expires. If she doesn't, the landlord still can't force her out. Instead, he has to file an eviction lawsuit, sometimes referred to as unlawful detainer.
The Eviction Process
Once the case goes to court, it's difficult to set a specific timeline because it's no longer up to the landlord alone. If the tenant decides it's pointless to fight it out, or just blows off the court date, the process can be over quickly. If the tenant chooses to contest the landlord's suit, things can drag out for much longer.
If there are any legal errors in the eviction notice or the notification process, that's often the first line of defense. For example, if the tenant proves the landlord didn't deliver the notice properly, the judge may order the landlord to write a new notice. That's only a temporary victory, but it does add time to the process.
If the tenant can prove the landlord is in the wrong, the judge may block the eviction completely. For example, it isn't legal to evict a tenant for filing a complaint against the landlord for a code enforcement violation.
Writ of Possession
Even winning the case won't trigger immediate eviction. The landlord must ask the court for a writ of possession, then present the writ to the county sheriff. The sheriff gives the tenant a deadline to leave, and removes her bodily if she refuses.
As usual, the timeline varies across the country, but it's never immediate. In New Hampshire, for instance, a court never issues a writ sooner than eight days after the hearing.
A graduate of Oberlin College, Fraser Sherman began writing in 1981. Since then he's researched and written newspaper and magazine stories on city government, court cases, business, real estate and finance, the uses of new technologies and film history. Sherman has worked for more than a decade as a newspaper reporter, and his magazine articles have been published in "Newsweek," "Air & Space," "Backpacker" and "Boys' Life." Sherman is also the author of three film reference books, with a fourth currently under way.