Landlords must follow a series of steps in order to legally evict a tenant. This is true whether the lease or rental agreement is in writing or was a verbal agreement.
First, the landlord gives the tenant written notice. If the notice allows the tenant to correct the problem, such as to pay the back rent or to remove a pet, the landlord can only evict if the tenant does not do what the notice asks. If the notice is not correctable, such as a 30- or 60-day notice to move out in a month-to-month tenancy, the landlord can file an unlawful detainer case in court when the notice period ends. Unlawful detainer is the legal name for an eviction.
The Unlawful Detainer Process
If the landlord has followed all the proper procedures, and the tenant either does not answer the court papers, or the tenant answers but the court decides in favor of the landlord, the court will order the sheriff to evict the tenant. If the court decides for the tenant, the tenant will get to stay.
It is against the law for landlords to evict tenants on their own, without going to court AND getting a court order directing the tenant to move out.
Even if the tenant is months behind on the rent, without a court order the landlord cannot:
Physically remove the tenant;
Get rid of the tenant's personal property;
Lock the tenant out;
Cut off the utilities, like water or electricity;
Remove outside windows or doors; or
Change the locks.
The court process of an unlawful detainer (eviction) usually takes about 30 days. The tenant has 5 days to file a response after being served with the landlord's lawsuit. Then, the court clerk will schedule a trial within 20 days of the landlord's request. The trial usually takes less than an hour (but it could take longer).
If the landlord wins, the tenant usually has about 5 days to move out. It depends on how fast the sheriff posts the property with the lock-out order. The lock-out order will allow the sheriff to lock the tenant out if the tenant does not leave the premises with his or her belongings within 5 days of the posting.
Unlawful detainers should not be used where:
A tenant wants the landlord to fix something in the apartment; A tenant moved out but still owes the landlord for unpaid rent or damages; There are disputes about fraud in the property's ownership; or There is a dispute about the security deposit after the tenant moves out. Find more information on security deposits.
Most of these cases, except for those involving property ownership disputes, are handled in small claims court.