How to handle an eviction notice

Facing eviction can feel overwhelming. But there are steps you can take if you receive an eviction notice. These are the key things to remember.

evident Editorial Team
November 28, 2023
Apartment building with fire escape and blue sky

Record numbers of Americans are facing (or will soon face) eviction. If you receive an eviction notice, you may feel overwhelmed and not know what to do. 

But as a tenant, you have certain rights, and your landlord must follow specific procedures set by law. Here are some key things to know, and steps you should take, if you’re facing eviction. 

Key Takeaways

Eviction Overview

Eviction is the formal legal process in which a landlord forces a tenant to leave their rental property. And note the words “formal” and “legal” in that sentence -- a landlord cannot simply change your locks and move your stuff to the curb without notice. 

Instead, each state has laws that establish what the valid grounds for eviction are and the process that a landlord must follow to evict a tenant. 

The first step in the formal process is usually an eviction notice, often called a “pay or quit notice.” In the eviction notice, the landlord must notify you of their issue. If their issue is missing rent payments, the notice will generally ask you to either pay rent or vacate the property within a certain number of days. 

So, a critical question is what you should do when you receive an eviction notice. Here are some of the key steps you should take.

Don’t leave your apartment immediately

Even if you are facing a valid eviction (e.g., you lost your job and haven’t been able to make rent payments), you don’t want to overreact or react too quickly. There is still a process that must unfold, and at a minimum, that can give you some time to get your affairs in order. You should respond promptly to the eviction notice or any court orders, but you should not leave immediately.

Plus, you may be able to fight an eviction order in court. Maybe your landlord didn’t give proper notice, or maybe you were able to catch up on rent during the notice period. Depending on the circumstances, this may only delay the eviction instead of avoiding it altogether. Still, that can provide you valuable time to plan your next steps.

Know your rights

Next, you’ll want to know your rights. Housing laws vary between states and even sometimes between cities. In all localities, it is illegal for your landlord to kick you out without going through your state’s formal eviction process. 

For instance, you must be given notice that you are being evicted. The amount of notice required varies from place to place, but the landlord cannot just change the locks on you one day. 

You also have to be given a chance to appear in court. And in some places, including New York City, tenants have a right to free legal counsel when facing eviction. It may be helpful to speak with a lawyer if you are facing eviction regardless of where you are, but especially if you can get that legal assistance for free.

Seek help - both legal and financial

As mentioned, some cities like New York have provided a right to free legal counsel when facing eviction. But even if your city has not provided a right to free legal counsel, there are organizations that may be able to help. 

You also might be able to get a lawyer to take your case pro bono (for free) and should reach out to your state’s bar association for referrals.

Separate from legal help, though, emergency rental assistance programs may be able to provide financial assistance if you are having trouble paying rent or utilities. Resources related to these programs include:

  • Information and resources provided by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development available here.
  • This searchable database that the National Low Income Housing Coalition created.

Talk to your landlord

If you have received a pay or quit notice from your landlord, it may feel like it’s too late to talk to them. But that may not be the case, and you won’t know unless you try. 

You’ll know best what type of relationship you have with your landlord and how open they might be to negotiating or finding a compromise. But as we note in our Real Estate Law overview, evictions are unpleasant for landlords as well as tenants. They are more disruptive to tenants who are forced to leave their homes, but they can also be a lengthy and expensive process for landlords as well. 

If you’re able to pay even some of your rent, that might help the landlord meet their own . Or, maybe your cash crunch is temporary and you’ll be able to make rent going forward. But your landlord can’t know that unless you’ve spoken with them.

The final word on handling an eviction notice

Facing the possibility of eviction is stressful and can feel overwhelming. Unfortunately, though, a record number of Americans are finding themselves in that situation. 

But there are steps you can and should take if you receive an eviction notice. The key things to remember are:

  • Don’t leave your apartment immediately -- your landlord must follow your state’s formal procedures, and even a few extra days can be crucial as you consider your options
  • Know your rights -- landlord-tenant laws vary state by state, and it is helpful to understand what the laws are where you live
  • Seek legal help and financial assistance -- there are organizations that might be able to provide you with legal aid for free, as well as financial assistance programs aimed at helping people who need help paying rent or utilities
  • Talk to your landlord -- last but not least, speak to your landlord. Eviction is a disruptive process for landlords, too, and you’ll never know if there’s room to compromise unless you talk to them.