Evictions must follow a strict legal process. If a tenant isn't paying rent or has repeatedly broken rules laid out in the code of conduct , the landlord has the right to begin the official eviction process. He can't take the law into his own hands, though. It's illegal in nearly all 50 United States for the landlord to lock out a tenant. The definition of a lockout includes changing locks, blocking entry into the rental unit, cutting off electricity or water, or any other method that prevents the tenant from normal use of the property [source: Metropolitan Tenants Organization].
The good news for landlords in the United States is that the eviction process is one of the shortest legal proceedings on the books. In Texas, for example, it's possible to legally evict a tenant in as few as nine days, and it's also possible to temporarily lock out a tenant for repeatedly failing to pay rent [source: Austin Tenant's Council]. Even in California, which has some of the toughest tenant rights laws, it only takes an average of 20 days for a judge to hear and rule on an eviction case [source: California Department of Consumer Affairs].
In most states, the eviction process begins with a formal letter of notification from the landlord that presents some clear options for the tenant. The tenant must pay his rent by a certain date, resolve whatever issue is at odds with the code of conduct or vacate the premises. Failure to do so will result in a lawsuit called an unlawful detainer -- the legal term for an eviction.
During an unlawful detainer case, both sides are given a chance to present their arguments. The judge decides, based on the testimonies and evidence presented by both the tenant and the landlord, whether or not the tenant is in violation of the lease. If the landlord wins, the tenant may be required to vacate the premises and pay all back rent and legal fees incurred by the landlord. If the tenant wins, the landlord may have to pay all of the tenant's legal fees.
If the landlord wins the case, he's given a writ of possession. The writ of possession states how many days the tenant has to remove himself and all of his belongings from the rental property. If the tenant fails to vacate by the set date, the landlord can't forcibly remove the tenant or his possessions. In most U.S. states, that job is the responsibility of a local sheriff or marshal. Most states also have strict procedures about what to do with any belongings that an evicted tenant leaves behind. Sometimes possessions have to be kept in storage for a number of days before being thrown away.
In the next section we'll look at some professional property management techniques that help avoid some of the hassles and headaches of being a landlord.