Aggressive Eviction Tactics: How Far Can a Landlord Go?

In early August, a frustrated North Carolina landlord – fed up with not being paid rent – spray painted “deadbeat tenants” on the garage of the rental house. The tenant was about two months behind on the rent. This made the landlord unable to pay the mortgage and the house was going into foreclosure.

With foreclosures at a high rate and on the rise, strained situations like the one in North Carolina are becoming increasingly common. It is important for both landlords and tenants to know what they can and cannot do in trying to solve the problem.

Spray painting the garage: is that even legal?

In the North Carolina case, the landlord was not charged because it is not illegal to spray paint your own property. Landlords generally have broad power over their properties, so while behavior like the kind in this case might be considered harassment and could leave the landlord vulnerable to a civil suit, it is unlikely to open the door for criminal charges.

While a landlord may be able to aggravate a tenant with tactics such as those used above, there is a line that cannot be crossed. Every state has laws against “constructive eviction.” This means that landlords cannot turn off utilities, change the locks, or otherwise force a tenant out without going through proper eviction procedures.

How can a landlord legally evict a tenant?

Eviction laws are different in every state, but they all follow basically the same procedure. A landlord must first give the tenant some sort of notice explaining that the tenant is being evicted, as well as the reasons for the eviction. Depending on the reason for the eviction, the tenant may be able to “cure” the breach within a few days. If the tenant fails to cure, or the breach is the kind that allows the landlord to evict the tenant immediately (typically for criminal activity or prior breaches), then the landlord may proceed to file an eviction suit in the proper court. Which court depends, again, on the state.

Once the eviction has been filed, the tenant has a certain number of days to move out, or to file an answer to the eviction arguing that he or she should not be evicted. The court will set a hearing and decide for one of the parties. After that, if the landlord wins, the tenant will have a certain number of days before the sheriff (or local equivalent) comes and moves his or her things to the sidewalk.

What can a tenant do when a landlord is using harassing tactics?

Though landlord behavior may toe the line between being merely irritating to a tenant and the illegal methods of constructive eviction, tenants may be able to get some relief. Tenants should document any behavior by the landlord that is out of line. For example, in most states the landlord must give a certain amount of notice before they come by the property for inspection or repairs or other reasons. If a landlord stops by, the tenant should tell the landlord that the tenant knows the law and hopes next time the landlord will abide by it. Sending emails is a good way to document this.

Further, a tenant can always talk to the police if the landlord behaves like the landlord in North Carolina. Though the police may not be able the charge the landlord with anything, the incident is documented if there is further trouble.

It goes without saying that landlord-tenant relations are best when tenants try their hardest to pay the rent on time and when landlords follow eviction procedures strictly. Landlord-tenant trouble is very common, and now that foreclosures are occurring more frequently, the stakes are higher for both parties – the tenant could lose his or her home and the landlord could lose the property.

If you are a tenant experiencing trouble with your landlord, you may find it helpful to contact an experienced landlord tenant attorney in your state. An attorney can represent you in your efforts to keep from being evicted, and help put a stop to aggressive landlord harassment.