What You Need to Know About the Eviction Process in North Carolina

What You Need to Know About the Eviction Process in North Carolina
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The eviction process in North Carolina can feel overwhelming and incredibly intimidating. It’s a legal process, and from the perspective of the tenant, it means losing your home. Here’s everything you need to know about eviction in North Carolina.

This guide will give you an in depth understanding of the eviction process in North Carolina, from start to finish. Towards the end, you’ll find a glossary of terms that will be helpful for anyone facing eviction. 

Court eviction in North Carolina

Eviction courtroom

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In NC, evictions are handled through the court system. Specifically, eviction cases tend to take place in small claims court as they are for less than ten thousand dollars. There can be cases where NC eviction cases are for more than ten thousand dollars, but this is unusual for individuals.

Small claims court for eviction in North Carolina only involves a judge, called a civil magistrate, the landlord, and the tenant. 

There’s no jury involved, and it’s not required for anyone to have a lawyer. Sometimes a landlord will bring in an attorney, but more often everyone represents themselves as there’s not enough money involved to justify the attorney’s fees. However, a tenant is legally allowed to have an attorney in North Carolina should they want one.

The trial itself will take place at the courthouse in the county seat of the North Carolina county where you live. For example, in Halifax County, that would be the courthouse in Halifax. In McDowell County, it’s at the courthouse in Marion. In Forsyth County, it’s at the courthouse in Winston-Salem.   

If one of the parties does not show up to court, there is a default judgment in favor of the other side. North Carolina landlords usually show up to the court hearing as they initiate the eviction filing. When the tenant fails to come to court, they are responsible for repaying whatever the judge decides on the eviction filing.

NC eviction complaint and eviction notice

In the North Carolina eviction process, eviction begins when a landlord filed an eviction complaint. This is simply a claim asking that the tenant move out of the home. 

It’s common for the landlord to ask that the court force the tenant to pay not only rent that’s past due, but also late fees, money to cover property damage, utility bills, and court costs. The landlord can also ask for other costs as well. 

All of this is written up in a document that the landlord files in the county courthouse or magistrate’s office in your North Carolina municipality. Landlords can file this kind of paperwork themselves, or they can have an attorney do it for them.

Once the paperwork is filed, a copy is made that comes from the court itself. This is then served legally to the tenant by law enforcement or by certified mail. That’s to ensure that the tenant has been notified. 

The summons and complaint must be served to the tenant within five days of their being filed, according to North Carolina law.

Along with the complaint, the tenant will get a summons to court. This is a legal written notice letting the tenant know what day, time, and place the hearing will take place.

Advocating in court eviction

Woman outside of courthouse waiting for eviction verdict

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It’s never a bad idea to get counsel before going into an eviction hearing in North Carolina. Though you are not required to get an attorney to represent you in eviction proceedings, unless you are extremely familiar with North Carolina eviction law, you’ll want some kind of counsel. 

Legal Aid of North Carolina provides no cost legal counsel to individuals for all kinds of legal interactions, including North Carolina eviction proceedings. Legal aid can help you understand the rental or lease agreement, give you insight into your possible counterclaim, and ensure that you are adequately compensated for any problems that were part of the claim. 

When going to eviction court, it’s important to bring supporting documents to shore up whatever claims you are making against your landlord. In North Carolina, the public is not permitted to bring cell phones or other electronic devices into an NC courthouse. You’ll need to print out any emails, text exchanges, or other documents that are relevant to your case. 

Organize your defense

It’s a good idea to organize your thoughts by writing them down so you can take them into court with you if you are defending against a landlord eviction.

Make sure you create a list of the following important points:

  • rent payments/rent receipts
  • property management interactions
  • rental agreement
  • lease violations by the landlord
  • eviction notices
  • interactions with the landlord

In district court, things move fast. this is not the moment to argue over the tenant’s personal property or the terse nature of communication from the property management company. Feelings have to take a back seat to explaining any past due rent and any time the landlord fails to repair essential items on the property.

Why NC evictions happen

Woman looking at money for eviction trial

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The heart of every eviction case is some kind of lease violation. Whether it’s criminal activity, when the tenant fails to pay rent owed, or holdover tenant problems. There are four instances when a landlord can file a summons and complaint for eviction under North Carolina Law.

  • Holdover – when a tenant stays on after the end of the lease term
  • Past due rent – when a tenant fails to pay rent
  • Lease violations – when a tenant doesn’t follow the terms of the lease agreement
  • Criminal activity – if a tenant participates in illegal activity in the rental property

These are as far as what the eviction process takes in North Carolina. A landlord has the right to evict a tenant for any of these reasons, but not for any other reason. This is important, as the North Carolina eviction process is carefully regulated.

Eviction and holdover

When a tenant stays past the end of the term of the lease or rental agreement, and if the lease agreement is not renewed, then they must leave the property under North Carolina law.

The amount of time that a renter has to leave the property at the end of the lease is dependent upon how long their lease agreement is. For week to week leases, the tenant has just two days to vacate the property. For month-to-month leases, the tenant has seven days to get their personal property off of the premises. For yearly lease agreements, the tenant has thirty days to vacate the premises.

If a tenant stays on the property after the end of the grace period that’s associated with their lease length, then they are subject to the eviction process, or summary ejectment.

Eviction and past due rent

Past due rent is the thing that we most commonly think of when we think of eviction.

In North Carolina, the rent is considered late if it is past due by one day. For example, if the rent is due on the 10th of the month, then the landlord must give a notice of eviction the next day on the 11th. This notice can either be verbal or written, either one.

A landlord does have the right to evict a tenant for not paying their rent on time in North Carolina.

The landlord can assess a late fee for lack of payment of rent, but only after five days past the due date. They can then charge up to five percent of the rent payment for being late, or fifteen dollars, whichever is higher.

If the tenant pays the rent that’s due, all of the rent and the associated late fee, then the eviction process is automatically stopped and the summary ejection is called off.

Eviction and lease agreement breaches

Breaking the lease or rental agreement is a big deal in the North Carolina eviction process. Within the lease is a list of things that the tenant must do in order to stay in the property.

These might include things like keeping renters insurance, not smoking in the home, lawn maintenance, utility payments, occupancy requirements, or pet requirements. When a tenant violates the stipulations of the rental agreement, they can be subject to eviction at the landlord’s discretion.

The landlord is not required to give a notice period in North Carolina to file eviction papers on a tenant who violates their lease agreement. Either the landlord can give the tenant some time to gather their personal property and leave the home immediately, or they can give a little extra time while the tenant remains and clears up their things. This is totally up to the landlord.

Eviction and criminal activity

Criminal activity is a major driver of many eviction cases. This could be something like drug trafficking or some other criminal activity as well. Criminal activity that’s investigated either by the sheriff’s office or the local police department is an automatic way for landlords to evict tenants.

An eviction notice is only guaranteed if the tenant was directly involved with the illegal activity. If they did nothing to stop it when it happened, it’s likely that they’ll also have to deal with the eviction process, but it’s not guaranteed.

If a tenant attempts to stop the illegal activity and can prove it to the magistrate, then they have grounds to stay on the premises. The magistrate’s judgment on this issue is how the tenant will find out if they’ll be given a notice period of when to vacate, or if they’ll be allowed to stay.

Fees and filing services

There is a filing fee that the landlord has to pay to file eviction papers in North Carolina.

The basic fee is $126 just to file the paperwork. Though this includes a document service fee of $30, that doesn’t actually cover the fee for the sheriff’s office to serve the individual. There’s another $15 fee for the sheriff to serve the summons and complaint to the tenant.

In 2018, a state law in North Carolina went into effect that allows landlords to sue tenants for attorney’s fees and other court costs. These fees cannot exceed 15% of the amount owed to the landlord, so this doesn’t mean that a tenant has to pay potentially unlimited fees. It’s all up to the magistrate’s judgment as to whether fees are assessed to the tenant.

Burden of proof

In North Carolina eviction hearings, the burden of proof is on the plaintiff, or the landlord who filed the summons and complaint to begin with. They must show that the tenant either failed to pay rent, violated the terms of the lease, committed criminal activity on the property, or that they are holding over past the expiration of the lease.

It’s up to the magistrate’s judgment to decide who is right and who is wrong in a civil case like this.

Glossary of North Carolina eviction terminology to know

Understanding the language in the eviction process is incredibly important if you’re facing eviction in North Carolina. 

It’s important to note that most of the words here are just legal terms for common words. Legal terminology surrounding North Carolina eviction can be intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. 

Here are thirteen eviction terms that you should be aware of.

  1. Answer and counterclaim

When a landlord files an eviction, the tenant has the right to file something in return stating their position. The answer is the document that the tenant files to respond to the eviction notice. It can include a counterclaim, which details what the tenant believes they are owed in the process.

  1. Appeal

An appeal is when the tenant asks for a new hearing after the current hearing is completed. In North Carolina eviction law, a tenant has ten days from the date of the magistrate’s judgment on eviction to file an appeal. 

  1. Breach of contract

When one party or the other doesn’t follow through with what’s been agreed upon in the lease, it constitutes a breach of contract. This is one possible grounds for eviction, but it’s not the only one. The landlord can breach the contract as well. 

  1. Continuance

A continuance postpones the court date, but only temporarily. A continuance might be granted if one of the parties can’t be there on the day of the hearing, or if there’s further evidence to be gathered before the hearing. As evictions are time sensitive, getting a continuance on a North Carolina eviction case is not guaranteed. A continuance only means that there’s a new court date for everyone to participate in.

  1. Fair rental value

The fair rental value is the amount of money that is reasonable for a tenant to pay a landlord given the condition of the home, the neighborhood it’s in, the size of the home, and other various features of the property. A tenant can ask the court to reduce the amount of money they owe if the landlord is charging more than fair rental value for the home in North Carolina.

Fair rental value will differ from county to county and it will also change over time. Where a studio apartment in Charlotte that’s in great shape might go for $1500 a month, that same space might go for $500 a month in downtown Goldsboro.

  1. Good cause

There has to be a compelling reason for eviction in North Carolina. This is called “good cause”, and it’s what the whole process hinges on in eviction court.

As stated above, there are four reasons that someone can be evicted according to the “good cause” rule in NC law. These reasons are: holding over on an expired lease, criminal activity, nonpayment of rent, and violation of the lease. There are no other options- these are it.

  1. Lease

The lease is the written agreement between the tenant and the landlord regarding the tenant’s use of the property. A lease is generally able to be renewed yearly, though there can be different lengths depending on what both parties agree to. Leases can be written or oral in North Carolina. An oral lease is sometimes known as a “handshake” lease.

The lease is binding to both parties. In it, the responsibilities of the tenant and the landlord are both clearly spelled out. Any violation of this agreement, by either the landlord or the tenant, constitutes a breach of the contract.

A rental agreement or lease agreement is there to protect both parties from getting taken advantage of in any way. It’s critical that tenants understand that the lease protects them as well as protecting the landlord.

  1. Magistrate

A judge in a North Carolina small claims court is called a magistrate. Small claims court is a civil court, meaning no one is penalized with jail time for whatever they are found guilty of. Small claims court is capped at $10,000 in North Carolina.

If the case is for more than that, then it moves to district court, where there are steeper fees and much more money involved. The vast majority of eviction hearings in North Carolina take place in small claims court.

  1. Notice

There are many different kinds of notices in the tenant/landlord relationship. There is the notice of eviction, which is the legal document served to a tenant stating that they have a certain amount of time to vacate the property. There is also the notice of repair, which occurs when the tenant lets a landlord know that something in the home needs to be fixed. In North Carolina, a notice of repair doesn’t have to be given in writing, though it’s always a good idea to do so as this provides evidence of the request. 

  1. Plaintiff & Defendant

A plaintiff is the person who starts a court case. In the case of eviction in North Carolina, the plaintiff would be the landlord, as they are the person who initiates an eviction proceeding. 

The defendant is the person who is brought to court. For North Carolina evictions, this would be the tenant. A defendant has the right to bring a counterclaim under North Carolina law, so the defendant can be awarded damages even though they didn’t initially bring the claim forward. 

  1. Rent abatement

If the North Carolina house is not well maintained and is therefore worth a lower amount of rent than the tenant was charged, a magistrate can order a rent abatement. A rent abatement is a reduction in the amount of rent because the landlord did not do adequate repairs to the property. In North Carolina, a judge can order that rent be abated for past rent, for future rent or for both past and future rent.

Rent abatement only happens when a tenant makes a strong case with lots of documentation to back it up. It’s important for tenants to rely on first hand accounts, rather than “hearsay”, which is when someone in court asserts that someone else told them something. Anything you offer to the judge must be something that you witness firsthand.  

  1. Retaliatory eviction

Under North Carolina eviction law, it is illegal for a landlord to evict a tenant because they exercised their legal rights within the calendar year. For example, if a tenant made repeated requests for repairs that went unaddressed and so called a housing inspector or a tenants’ rights organization to advocate for them, it’s not legal for the landlord to evict them.

Retaliatory eviction is a real problem that comes up when a landlord wants to sell a home without tenants in it or when a landlord wants to keep from handling property repairs. There are lots of resources available throughout North Carolina to help tenants who are facing retaliatory eviction. 

  1. Summary ejectment

This is the legalese for eviction in North Carolina. In NC, a landlord files something called a “Complaint in Summary Ejectment” to remove the tenant from the home. In North Carolina, eviction is the common term for summary ejectment.

What happens if you’re evicted in NC

Gavel used in eviction court

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Tenants in North Carolina who are evicted may end up not only paying rent, but paying court costs as well. Personal property will have to be removed from the home by a date that the magistrate gives during the eviction hearing.

In some cases, the sheriff’s office will send an officer to escort the tenant back to the home to get their personal property. North Carolina landlords are entitled to take possession of the property after eviction hearings when a writ of possession is issued. The writ of possession will give an exact date when the tenant has to be out of the home.

If you have gone through the district court process, and completed the appeal process, then you must leave the rental property if the judgment was found against you in district court. It’s an unfortunate but inevitable outcome.

The best way to deal with eviction

Couple moving after eviction

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The best way to face the eviction process in North Carolina is to be honest and straightforward throughout the eviction process.

Landlords have a right to rent payments on property they own. Though a district court magistrate might be empathetic to your situation, they will still hold you to the fact that you must pay rent.

If you feel you’ve been the subject of an unethical eviction process, contact legal aid to explore the possibility of legal representation. The summons and complaints you get in the mail might seem intense, but you’ll get through it.

The most important thing to remember is that the eviction process only takes a few weeks. Whatever the outcome is, you can always look to the next steps and to rebuild your life. Resilience is the watchword when facing eviction in North Carolina.

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