How to Get Rid of a Tenant Who Won’t Leave After their Lease Expires

There’s nothing more distressing to a landlord, property owner or manager than having to remove a tenant who refuses to leave when their lease expires. It can be an expensive and time consuming process. Moreover, the entire procedure is full of bureaucratic red tape and legal land mines. There are, however, some simple steps one can take to lower the cost of removing a tenant and expedite the removal process. We’ll exam each below.

Understanding Your Situation

A “holdover tenant” is a tenant who stays in a property after their lease has expired. If a landlord continues to accept rental payments from this tenant, they can legally continue their occupancy without an explicit, legal contract (a lease) in place. Most landlords have a clause in their lease agreement that handles this situation to avoid the legally ambiguous holdover tenancy. Some automatically renew the lease for a full year, others switch their tenant to a month-to-month agreement.

Accepting rent from a holdover tenant without a formal agreement in place can quickly turn into a messy situation. State laws vary, but you may complicate or limit your legal recourse to remove them by taking a payment. For this reason, we strongly advise against it. If you do decide to accept a payment from your holdover tenant, their occupancy will fall into one of two categories:

Tenancy at Will

At-will tenancy occurs when a tenant occupies and pays for a property without any formal lease agreement in place, but with the consent of both the tenant and the landlord. At-will tenancy is subject to the will of both the tenant and the landlord (hence the name). In other words, the tenant can choose to leave and stop paying rent at any time, and the landlord can choose to stop accepting rent and ask the tenant to leave at any time. Some refer to tenancy at will as a month-to-month lease, however, month-to-month leases often have a formal agreement in place that governs the occupancy and determines how and when that occupancy can cease.

Tenancy at Sufferance

Tenancy at sufferance occurs when a tenant occupies and pays for a property without any formal lease agreement in place, without the consent of the landlord. A landlord can accept rent but still desire that the tenant vacate the premises, but as noted above, in some states, this may complicate or extend the eviction process.

When it comes to holdover tenancy, ambiguity is your enemy. Either set a new lease, continue an existing one, or do not accept money. If you forego the latter two options and your tenant does not leave, they become a trespasser in your property.  

Options for Removing a Tenant Whose Lease Has Expired

The tenant removal process is different for a person who overstays their lease versus a tenant who is a simple deadbeat and fails to pay their rent. The law often requires a slightly different set of procedures for each. If the tenant will not leave after their lease agreement has expired, you have two options for removing them:

1. Eviction

You know it, you hate it, but it works. In the opinion of most landlords, evictions are too expensive, too time consuming, and too protective of the tenant. But evictions are also the only legally permitted means of forcibly removing a tenant from your property.

If you have a holdover tenant and you did not accept any additional payments, you’re in some luck (but don’t get too excited): in some states, you do not need to provide a 3-day, 7-day, or 30-day notice to quit. You can immediately file an eviction if the tenant refuses to leave the property. However, this is likely only the case if you did not accept any additional payments. If you took a rental payment from the tenant after their lease expired, you’ll need to provide all the normal notices.

When your tenant overstays their lease, you will still, however, be required to go through the normal eviction process. This means you’ll likely file a formal eviction with your local municipality, attend a hearing before a judge, and abide by their ruling.

Again, as long as you didn’t accept any payment from the tenant beyond the agreed upon duration of their lease, the case should be decided in your favor in a relatively quick manner. Still, evictions can take weeks and, in some circumstances, months to resolve themselves.

From here, if the tenant doesn’t willing leave, you’ll likely need a sheriff, constable, or police officer to actually force the removal of the tenant (although again, this depends on your state).

In other words, to summarize, evicting a tenant that has stayed past their lease agreement is effectively no different than evicting a tenant in the middle of their lease ; you simply get to jumpstart the process.

2. Cash for Keys

There is another option for getting rid of a holdover tenant that can be applied at any time in any situation. It does not involve lawyers, courts and judges and it often expedites the entire process. The drawback: it is a distasteful and, from the landlord’s point of view, profoundly unjust alternative. Nevertheless, it often works.

“Cash for keys” refers to an agreement between a tenant and a landlord for the tenant to move out on an agreed upon date in exchange for cash. As unseemly as it sounds, many tenants will pack up and go if they are paid.

If you decide to go this route, we recommend starting small – you’d rather this not turn into a negotiation, but it technically is. Offer them an additional portion of their security deposit if they leave quickly and quietly. Throw in ten percent of their rent if needed. Do not – and we repeat: do not – give them the money until you have their keys in hand. Make it a single exchange once they’ve moved all of their belongings off the premises.

This may feel like blackmail, and it is surely a severe injustice, but paying your bad apple tenants to leave can often be the more economically rational decision. Evaluate your circumstances, do your best to remove your emotions from your consideration, and determine whether or not cash for keys is the right business decision. 

Unfortunately, some tenants know how costly the court ordered eviction process can be for a landlord, and they use this as leverage. If their negotiated price no longer makes financial sense, or if “cash for keys” simply doesn’t work, you can start the formal eviction process.

What You Cannot Do When Your Tenant Refuses to Leave

The above two options may be frustrating, but in almost all cases, they are your only options. Tenant-landlord rights have been heavily litigated in all states, and the worst thing you could possibly do is unwittingly violate a law that puts you in a worse position than you’re currently in.

Here are a handful of actions you should never take when trying to remove a tenant:

Do not change the locks

If the tenant won’t return the key, what better way to force them out than by making it so that their key no longer works? This is illegal in almost every state and will result in fines, some quite hefty. It also may damage your case in front of a judge when eviction time does come around

Do not turn off the power

Just like changing the locks, in an effort to protect the safety and rights of the tenant, this is illegal in nearly all circumstances.

Do not throw their possessions out or otherwise dispose of their belongings

Not only can removing a tenant’s possessions without their consent result in a fine, it can also result in criminal proceedings. Don’t do it.

Do not harass the tenant or anyone occupying the property

As part of your eviction proceeding, a judge will likely require that you provide them the correspondence you had with the tenant. As hard as it may be at times, it is critical that you ensure your behavior is professional in those interactions. Harassment can endanger your ruling and result in criminal proceedings.

How Did Things Get Here?

If you find yourself in a situation in which your tenant will not leave your property after their lease has expired, it means they were at least a decent enough tenant to make it through the entire lease. They might have even been a great tenant – clean, paying on time, respectful of their neighbors. That’s why it’s all the more frustrating to find yourself in a situation in which these once good tenants have broken bad.

To prevent this from happening, there are a few relatively simple steps you can take. Firstly, be clear in your communication to the tenant. Even if you’re not legally obligated to provide a notice (your lease should include a termination clause already), it can be helpful to remind the tenant. Perhaps your tenant that just won’t leave can’t – they forgot their lease was coming up and they haven’t found another place to live.

Secondly, and this is a good general rule of thumb, do your best to foster a positive relationship with your tenant. If they like and respect you as a landlord, they’ll probably respect your agreement. But always remember, your tenants should see you as a business owner first.

Finally, prevent bad tenants by only finding good ones. An effective tenant screening process is your best defense against evictions – stop them before they can even happen.

Wrapping Up

Regardless of how you got here, it’s probably time to go through the painful process of removing the tenant. If you can bring yourself to swallow the distasteful pill, paying off the tenant can be a quick and dirty solution. Alternatively, an eviction may be necessary. Whichever you choose, make the decision with a clear, rational understanding of your situation. And as always, be sure to consult your local laws before taking any drastic action.

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28 comments

  1. Sad that Tenant’s can violate & Default & Breach Lease Agreement & Landlord/Owner suffers the loss because their property is being held up from future paying Tenant’s & a judgement is all you get in Evictions. Then during CDC’S MANDATE TO HALT EVICTIONS During Covid-19 Coronavirus Pandemic many of the Tenant’s won’t even register with Government Rental Assistance Programs & holdup Landlords/Property Owners Properties & keep them from getting paid for past due rent by not filling out Tenant’s Portion of registration for Rental Assistance…How unjust is this Judicial System. Really An Awful INJUSTICE ! Only God Can Restore All The Losses & says in His Word…
    Be Not Deceived For God ls Not Mocked,For Whatsoever A Man Sows That Shall He Also Reap.
    Galatians 6:7

    1. Thanks for the comment, Myrtle. It’s definitely tricky – the intent behind the moratorium (and behind many tenant-landlord laws) is to be beneficial to society as a whole. Unfortunately, it does seem landlords are often left out of the equation.

      Sometimes there’s no answer, but we do always suggest reaching out to and trying to work with your tenants. You might be surprised by what can come of a conversation if you present your side with empathy. Regardless, good luck moving forward!

  2. Hello, My tenant will not leave , so I will move in even if she is there or she goes queitly . please reply

    1. Hey Tony, that sounds like a tough situation – sorry you’re dealing with it. It sounds like you might need to get the authorities involved. You may have heard of the eviction moratorium but based on what you’ve stated so far, it likely doesn’t apply to this situation. Good luck with the transition!

  3. My family and I (wife and 3 kids) recently accepted a promotion that is moving us back to Florida from New Jersey. We have a month to month lease with our current tenant in Florida and our management company has provided him 45 day notice but he states he will not leave and will fight this. He’s never not paid and besides a few minor HOA violations was an okay tenant but now we have to be in FL by June 18th with no idea if we’ll have a home to return to or not. We haven’t accepted anymore rent from him as of last month, how long (ballpark) can this take? Luckily the kids will be on summer break but we’d like to be moved in before school starts, not sure if that’s realistic?

    1. Hey Will, sorry you’re going through what is surely a stressful process. It should be possible to get an expedited eviction, especially if you’re going to be occupying the property yourself. But I would strongly suggest you contact a lawyer. You could definitely handle this on your own, but it’s prone to errors that will cause the process to take longer than it otherwise could. An lawyer with experience in the Florida eviction process will know ways to keep things moving along. Regardless, good luck!

  4. The tenant and his wife split up, and since she left in February not a penny of rent has been paid. The wife was the breadwinner, he stayed home and watched the 2 kids. The lease ended April 30th, and he is still there. I did try to speak to the holdover tenant and asked him to leave as his lease expired and I want to furnish the unit for a traveling nurse. I told him he would not owe me a penny if he go his way and I go mine, no hard feelings. He said he had nowhere to go so I suggested his family or a friend. He said he has rights and does not have to leave until July then said he had a paper somewhere but then when he came back he did not have a paper to show me he only took my photo as I was heading back to my car. He then called my real estate broker broker and left a long message yelling at him. This guy does not work. I asked his wife to try to help and she said she would try but he does not listen. She asked him to get a job but he did not. She said that she would try to reach out to his family and friends, but he is still there, and he would not qualify at all with no job plus he already called and yelled at my real estate broker and he did receive the non-renewal of lease. This is in Coastal Oregon, please help!

    1. Hey Mattie,

      It sounds like you ought to reach out to a lawyer. This seems to be a pretty clear case for an eviction. If the lease has actually expired, then it is not just non-payment of rent. Regardless, evictions are tricky to navigate right now and we strongly encourage you to contact a lawyer to help get you through it as quickly and effectively as possible. You could also explore cash for keys as distasteful as it seems.

      Good luck!

      1. Thank-you for your input, I appreciate it! Yes, well…I don’t like that cash for keys thing, I mean, it just does not seem fair to actually pay someone extra who is stealing from you? I mean, this guy is strong and healthy and could work if he wanted to, I think he’s like a love bandit type he gets a girl that ends up being the breadwinner then they leave him after they find out that he won’t get a job! I’m not sure of the details, but his current wife had no choice but to leave because he would not leave the unit, so she moved in with her mom a while now is in a rent-to-own place. I think the guy actually wants us to go after his wife’s earnings but I don’t like that idea so much…I’d so much rather a more humane way to deal with things, if he would just leave I could then furnish my unit to rent it furnished to a traveling Medical Professional so that way I could at least get some of my losses recuperated…I don’t like the idea of going to court either in my area because there is a new judge and rumor has it that he hates landlords as he used to work as an attorney who helped tenants, so he usually always sides with the tenants! It is not a good situation! I pray this government intervention which only helps tenants will end! It’s so unfair! Not all owners and landlords are bad! We try our best and the way things have been have made our lives so hard! In Oregon, the moretorium is to end June 30th yet they still give tenants until February of 2022 to repay back rents! What about this deadbeat that has not paid a penny since his wife moved out and has no job and the other deadbeat who snuck out mid-April leaving the place filthy with all his garbage and junk, skipping the State owing rent since January of this year and that guy is a Veteran getting government money he qualified yet just pocketed the money stiffing us! What do you suggest for these types of persons who are playing the system? Also, I saw the current guy who is still in our unit his car was parked at the local pot shop! He obviously has money for pot yet no rent? He signed that form saying he is affected by Covid yet he never had a job! What can be done about this…?

  5. I let my sister and her family move in as roommates. I have not been staying at the home for some time. They missed payments and our oral lease expired. I notified them they needed to leave the property (They did not). I obtained an attorney that filed an unlawful detainer. They responded. Their attorney is actively slow in responses and employing delay tactics. What can I do to speed this process along? (3 months in with no end in sight).

    1. Hey Karen, I’m really sorry to hear you’re dealing with that. The attorney that you hired, do they specialize in evictions? Each municipality has its own rules and idiosyncrasies so it’s hard to prescribe a specific solution for you. A local attorney specializing in this field should be able to find ways to keep things moving though. Good luck!

  6. I have a tenant that lease expired in April but refuses to leave. I gave them a 30 day notice and all they tell me is that they can’t find a place. They still are paying rent. Should I stop accepting the rent, so i can start the eviction process? Should i give another notice? please help. I live in Illinois

    1. Hey Yolanda, I’m sorry to hear you’re dealing with this. I would say, firstly, consult an Illinois eviction attorney. If you don’t know any, reach out to your local landlord / apartment association. They will have knowledgeable recommendations. Defer to their guidance, but, generally, if you start accepting rent, it will make it much more difficult to remove the tenant. If you want to remove them, you likely should not be accepting rent.

  7. Thank you for the advice. I have a question though.
    What happens if the tenant is out of the country, f.e. stuck overseas due to the COVID outbreak?
    Is the Tribunal still going to resolve the matter in favor of the landlord and then the sheriff comes in and gets all the belongings out on the street?

    1. It’s unfortunately difficult for us to say one way or another (as these things can be circumstantial to a certain degree), but I would imagine this would work in your favor. As always, we suggest reaching out to your local landlord association or a lawyer that specializes in evictions. Good luck!

  8. Hi there,
    I am a landlord in N.J. Tenants have a leak in bathroom that is going into downstairs kitchen.
    Plumber came and opened up ceiling in kitchen and said it was a grout problem.
    Tenants made it very difficult to get grout people in. VM full and after me reminding them that work needed to get done they set-up appt and then were not home. I finally said that I would accompany another grout person ( the other one was so annoyed would not come back). They said o.k. and we went. There was water all over the floor from shower curtain not being closed and this person said work was too extensive for him to handle. I notified tenant that at this point I had to do extensive work and renovations and that I would not be renewing their lease.
    The tenant berated me for walking thru his entire apt and looking thru their things and that I was no longer welcome in their apt.
    I sent them a notice that according to the lease they had to permit access to the apt and that I would be coming with my contractor and another grout person on a specific date. I then called off the appts and to my dismay tenant told me he had waited over an hour and nobody showed up. Then once again “You will be hearing from my lawyer”.
    I was over there yesterday as I was having a new roof put on. Again he said thanks for not notifying us. I did thru texts two times.
    As you know there is a moratorium on evictions in NJ. What to do?

    1. Hey Ellamae, this is a tough situation. I’m sorry that you’re dealing with it. It can be particularly horrifying when you believe the tenant is actually damaging your property. The sense of urgency to remove them can be anxiety inducing. I have some good news – the eviction moratorium applies to unpaid rent. It does not apply to a tenant violating their lease in other ways (and this includes property damage). I would suggest consulting a local lawyer specializing in evictions or your local landlord association, but you should have options here. Good luck!

  9. I own a 2 family house in NJ . I live on the 1st floor and have a tenant on the 2nd fl. There lease is up July 31 . I sent the notice to quit . Can he be evicted?

    1. Hey Bob, did you send the Notice to Quit due to a violation of the terms of your lease? If not, the tenant will be permitted to stay in the property until July 31st. If they stay past the 31st, you will have an option to evict (depending on some other factors, of course!).

  10. Hello, I wrote over a month ago about an awful holdover tenant whose lease expired April 30th and he did receive the non-renewal of lease notice. We do 1st/last/security deposit on move-in and the wife told me he had a job at our local Safeway, but he did not. He never got a job, and the couple split up. The wife did ask him to leave, yet he would not leave, and she was the breadwinner. Wife to the dog (she said right before moving in she forgot to let me know that the dog was an emotional support animal for her husband) In addition to him being a holdover, he has been generally unpleasant, he takes my photos, he stirs things up, he called my real estate broker who helps manage our units and he told my property manager that I was showing a property manager the grounds and talking near his open window so he heard me say I planned to fire the real estate broker which is all a lie, it never happened! My real estate broker told me about it a few weeks ago is how I found out about this. Now this guy has applied for help funds which he did get and we would be getting all the months he is in the arrears(March, April, May, June, July) so he has not paid rent for 5 months now, and the help amount equals 7 months. The paperwork reads that if you take the funds, you must agree to not do an eviction for 30-days so you have to wait until at least 30-days after you get the funds to do the eviction. The other thing that happened recently is that there was a recent AMBER ALERT as this guy took the little daughter out of the area and abandoned the unit, then his wife put out the Amber Alert so he came back, but while he was gone, my real estate broker posted his door with proper notice and saw many belongings and utilities were off. My real estate broker then put utilities in his offices name, but when he did try to get in, our key would not work because this tenant changed the locks without permission, so my real estate broker called a locksmith and got in. So then this awful guy shows up at 2:41am and wakes up my helper tenant and asks him if he had a key. My helper said no he does not have any keys, only the real estate broker had keys and told the guy to contact the real estate broker…the tenant said yes, but not at this hour then he asked my helper tenant to have his little special needs son come over to squeeze through the small opening he managed to get at the back sliding glass door yet my helper said NO, then text me of what was going on. What happened after that is this awful tenant got a locksmith and changed the locks then he proceeds to call & yell on the phone to my real estate broker about his rights so my real estate broker told him there was an Amber Alert out so he thought he had a situation on his hands, and the key we had did not work, electricity was off so he put it in his offices name which it will stay in that name until the end of June, then tenant could put it back in his name, and also that we always need a copy of the key and it is not okay to change the locks nor let the utilities go off. The tenant said he would drop a key in the Dropbox at the real estate office…I’m not sure if that ever happened or not. So now we are just waiting for this guys funding then a countdown of the 30 required days of waiting before doing the eviction. We just got a new couple in the fully furnished unit next door to this guy and he calls and is yelling at my real estate broker yet again on the very day this couple moved in and tells my real estate broker that the new couple knew all his business because I told them! This is yet another lie! I call the new couple and ask if they had any interaction at all with the guy next door, the lady says no, none at all, and her boyfriend only said hello once for less than 10-seconds…that was it. This guy is trying to build himself a case to get paid a jackpot fine! He is awful! The new judge in our area used to work as an attorney to help tenants and my real estate broker told me the new judge generally hates all landlords. I think the funds will be here in a day or two, then we will be counting down the time to do the eviction, yet very apprehensive due to the behaviors of this awful tenant. Any advice would be welcomed and appreciated,thank-you

    1. Hey Mattie, we’re sorry to hear about all this – it sounds like a nightmare tenant. We recommend doing two things: first, contact a good local lawyer. Sounds like you might need some help in this fight. Secondly, as yourself if those months of payment are really worth it. Would you rather move on from this guy or accept the rent and continue to deal with him? Good luck!

  11. I have rented a single family home in New Jersey to the tenant for one year with specific clause that the agreement will not automatically renew. Our agreement expires on 31st August. We told the tenant 4 months in advance (by email) that we are not interested in renewing the lease, and, we continued to tell him the same for last 3 months, but he is not willing to move out. The tenant is quite well to do, with 200k annual income and he has 4 multi-family homes in different parts of New Jersey which he is renting out. So, if I refuse to accept rent past August, is he considered hold-over tenant or month-to-month tenant? Once we evict them, can we then sue for double the rent for the holdover period ? And, lastly, during the time the tenant is holding-over the property, I am still responsible to ensure that he has habitable living conditions, for example, if the plumbing is clogged, do I must get this fixed for him?

    1. Hey Yogini, as long as you do not accept any rent from the tenant, he will be in breach of contract and you will have a (relatively) simple eviction process. If there is a problem with the property while the tenant is still illegally occupying it, we would generally recommend you resolve that issue. You don’t want to do anything that could complicate his removal and, what’s more, you don’t want to create any lasting damage to your property. Hope this helps and good luck!

  12. I own a rental and the lease is up Aug 1st. I want them to move and I’m not going to collect rent for August but what reason do I put on the eviction notice to give them? I’m in Ohio. Do I give a 3 day eviction?

    1. Hey Michelle, this actually doesn’t sound like an eviction just yet. Do you have reason to believe they will not exit the premises on the 1st? If the lease is clearly up at the end of July, the tenant is required to leave (again, as long as you don’t accept rent). The only exception to this would be if your lease has a clause that states it automatically transfers to month-to-month unless either party gives notice. If that’s the case, you may need to notify them of a move-out date in the future (Ohio requires 30 days).

  13. Hi, my tenant lease expires at the end of August. I informed them at the beginning of July via certified mail and couple of emails that lease will not be extended since I need a property for myself. Ever since they stop communicating and paying rent and utilities. They do not want to move and even threatened with legal action, not sure on what basis. Should I submit 7:days notice to quit on 1st of August or wait if by some miracle they move out?

    1. Hey Paul, We would recommend filing the notice to quit. It may scare the tenant into action and it lays the groundwork for future legal recourse. That being said, you mentioned that you alerted them at the beginning of July. If they were on a month-to-month lease, I would consult your local laws. Most states require at least 30 days notice for lease termination.

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