Self-Help Evictions

A self-help eviction is when landlords take it upon themselves (without a court order) to evict a tenant from their rental unit—but is it legal? Read on to find out where (or if) it’s legal, and what happens if a landlord chooses to do one.

Table of Contents:

  • What It Is – What qualifies as a “self-help” eviction
  • Legality – Determining whether a self-help eviction is legal in your state
  • Financial Costs – Performing a self-help eviction can be costly for landlords

What is a “Self-Help” Eviction?

Throwing a tenant (or their belongings) out of the rental unit is called a “self-help” eviction because the landlord has taken it upon themselves to remove the tenant from their rental unit instead of getting a court order to remove the tenant.

Valid Reasons to Evict a Tenant

In most states, any one of the following is a valid reason to evict a tenant:

  • Violating the terms of a written lease/rental agreement
  • Failing to pay rent when due
  • Material health/safety violations
  • Involvement in illegal activity on the rental property
  • Domestic violence against another tenant
  • Remaining in the rental unit after the lease term or agreed-upon rental period has expired

Read more

However, just because a tenant has done something worthy of eviction in your state, that doesn’t automatically mean a landlord has the right to simply kick the tenant out and throw all their belongings out into the street.

Actions That Qualify as Self-Help Evictions

The following actions are examples of a landlord or property owner performing a self-help eviction:

  • Changing the locks without telling the tenant(s)
  • Removing the tenant’s belongings from the rental unit when they’re not home
  • Shutting off the tenant’s utilities for the sole purpose of forcing the tenant to move out
  • Refusing to perform necessary repairs in an attempt to get the tenant to move out
  • Or otherwise preventing the tenant(s) from physically entering or living in the rental unit

Some of the ways landlords could prevent tenants from living in or entering the rental unit include:

  • Boarding up exterior doors/windows
  • Removing exterior doors/windows
  • Removing interior or exterior walls/portions of walls
  • Otherwise damaging the rental unit to make it unsafe to live in

While the above examples may seem extreme, these actions have been specifically banned in several states, so someone somewhere has probably tried them.

Why Do Some Landlords Perform Self-Help Evictions?

Some landlords feel that it’s cheaper and/or faster than pursuing an eviction action through the court system.

And, if the landlord is being retaliatory or discriminatory, they may want to avoid a hearing because they know the court would rule in the tenant’s favor.

Other landlords may just be unaware of the laws in their state regarding the eviction process and may not even realize that a self-help eviction is illegal.

When an Immediate Eviction is NOT a Self-Help Eviction

Several states have special procedures in place for tenants who pose a serious threat to the landlord or other tenants. Typically, tenants who are involved in certain types of illegal activity, perpetrators of domestic violence, or tenants who harm/threaten to harm others fall into this category.

In these states, written notice may not be required prior to evicting the tenant. In some states, law enforcement officials may be called in to immediately remove the tenant, while others hold expedited hearings to remove the tenant within a few days of the harmful/illegal behavior.

Read more

Only Mississippi actually allows self-help evictions, and possibly West Virginia.

Mississippi landlords may only pursue a self-help eviction if the rental agreement has expired and the tenant remains in the rental unit, as long as the self-help eviction isn’t primarily to retaliate against the tenant.

Read more

In West Virginia, if landlords are allowed to perform self-help evictions, they could only be done for lease violations and nonpayment of rent, not to remove a tenant at the expiration of the lease term/rental period.

Read more

Landlords in any other state attempting to do a self-help eviction may find themselves being sued by their tenants, paying large fines, and/or being forced to allow the tenant to move back into the rental unit, depending on the state.

In Missouri , a landlord performing an illegal eviction is guilty of forcible entry and detainer, and faces the same penalties that any tenant found guilty of forcible entry and detainer would.

Although self-help evictions are illegal in all but two states, only four states consider them to be criminal acts. Connecticut, Minnesota, and New York all classify self-help evictions as misdemeanors.

In addition, Massachusetts landlords could face up to six months in jail if found guilty of performing an illegal (self-help) eviction.

Financial Costs of Self-Help Evictions

As noted above, self-help evictions are illegal in 48 states.

In 12 states and the District of Columbia, the maximum amount of damages a tenant can receive for being illegally evicted is up to the judicial officer and not set by law.

That means there’s no cap on how much a judicial officer could order a landlord to pay a tenant for trying to remove them from the rental unit illegally.

The 12 states with no limit on damages are:

  • Arkansas
  • Colorado
  • Georgia
  • Indiana
  • Louisiana
  • Missouri
  • New Jersey
  • Pennsylvania
  • Utah
  • Vermont
  • Wisconsin
  • Wyoming

In the other 36 states, there’s a cap on the amount of damages tenants can receive that’s set by state law.

The chart below breaks down the maximum allowable amounts in these 36 states.

State Maximum Damages Tenant May Recover
Alabama 1) 3 months’ rent or actual damages, whichever is greater, plus attorney’s fees

2) Security deposit must be returned to tenant plus any pre-paid rent

Alaska 1) 1.5 times the amount of actual damages, plus attorney’s fees

2) Security deposit must be returned to tenant plus any pre-paid rent

Arizona 1) 2 months’ rent or double the amount of actual damages, whichever is greater

2) Security deposit must be returned to tenant

California Actual damages plus attorney fees AND $100 for each day the tenant is kept out of the rental unit
Connecticut 1) 2 months’ rent or double the amount of actual damages, whichever is greater

2) Security deposit must be returned to tenant plus any pre-paid rent

Delaware 1) Triple damages or an amount equal to 3 times the per diem rent for the amount of time the tenant was out of the rental unit, whichever is greater

2) Costs of the lawsuit (excluding attorney’s fees)

Florida Actual damages or 3 months’ rent, whichever is greater, plus attorney’s fees and court costs
Hawaii 1) 2 months’ rent, court costs and attorney’s fees

2) Security deposit must be returned to tenant

Idaho 3 times the amount of actual damages
Illinois 1) No rent owed during the time utilities are shut off

2) $300 or $5,000 divided by all tenants, whichever is less

Iowa 1) Actual damages plus double the monthly rent payment and attorney’s fees

2) Security deposit must be returned to tenant plus any pre-paid rent

Kansas 1) 1.5 times the monthly rent or actual damages, whichever is greater

2) Security deposit must be returned to tenant

Kentucky 1) 3 months’ rent plus attorney’s fees

2) Pre-paid rent must be returned to tenant

Maine 1) Actual damages or $250, whichever is greater

2) Court costs and attorney’s fees

Maryland Actual damages plus attorney’s fees and court costs
Massachusetts 1) $300 fine

2) Actual damages or 3 months’ rent, whichever is greater

3) Court costs and attorney’s fees

Michigan Actual damages or $200, whichever is greater
Minnesota 1) $500 or triple the amount of actual damages, whichever is greater

2) Attorney’s fees

Montana 1) Triple damages or 3 months’ rent, whichever is greater

2) Security deposit must be returned to tenant plus any pre-paid rent

Nebraska 1) 3 months’ rent

2) Security deposit must be returned to tenant plus any pre-paid rent

Nevada 1) Actual damages or $2,500 OR both

2) Court costs

New Hampshire 1) $3,000 or actual damages, whichever is greater

2) Court costs and attorney’s fees

New Mexico 1) Double the monthly rent

2) Court costs and attorney’s fees

New York $10,000 per violation
North Carolina Actual damages
North Dakota 3 times the amount of actual damages
Ohio Actual damages plus attorney’s fees
Oklahoma 1) 2 times the amount of actual damages or double the monthly rent, whichever is greater

2) Security deposit must be returned to tenant plus any pre-paid rent

Oregon 1) 2 times the amount of actual damages or double the monthly rent, whichever is greater

2) Security deposit must be returned to tenant plus any pre-paid rent

Rhode Island 1) 3 times the amount of actual damages or triple the monthly rent, whichever is greater

2) Security deposit must be returned to tenant plus any pre-paid rent

3) Attorney’s fees

South Carolina 1) 3 months’ rent or twice the amount of actual damages plus attorney’s fees

2) Security deposit must be returned to tenant

South Dakota 1) 2 months’ rent

2) Security deposit must be returned to tenant plus any pre-paid rent

Tennessee 1) Actual damages plus attorneys’ fees

2) Security deposit must be returned to tenant plus any pre-paid rent

Texas 1) One month’s rent plus $1,000

2) Actual damages

3) Attorney’s fees and court costs

Virginia 1) Actual damages plus attorney’s fees

2) Security deposit must be returned to tenant

Washington Actual damages plus attorney’s fees and court costs

As indicated in the chart above, some states allow tenants who have been illegally evicted to receive their security deposit and/or pre-paid rent as part of the damages owed to them by the landlord.

However, tenants in those states must decide whether they want to return to the rental unit (and allow the landlord to retain the security deposit and/or pre-paid rent), or if they want to live somewhere else and receive the security deposit and/or pre-paid rent from the landlord as part of the court settlement.

Landlords who choose to perform a self-help eviction could end up losing more than just a bad tenant—they may end up paying fines, court costs, attorney’s fees, and damages to their illegally evicted tenants. And, after all that, they may just find that the court has ordered them to allow the tenant to move back into the rental unit.

For tenants who violate lease provisions, fail to pay rent on time, or are involved in illegal activity, it’s best to follow the laws of whatever state the rental unit is in and legally evict a tenant, even if it does take a little more time than a self-help eviction.