What do you do when a tenants doesn’t pay rent?
Step 1: Check Your Lease Documents and Payment Records
As silly as it may sound, double-check your records to make sure the tenant is truly late with his or her rent. Sometimes landlords keep better records on paper than they do in their heads and can be mistaken as to when something was– or was not– paid. While most states don’t legally specify a certain grace period in which the tenant can pay the rent, the majority of leases contain a clause allowing a 3 or 5-day period after it is due for it to be paid. If you’ve double-checked and found that yes, the tenant is indeed late, then you’re bound to the provisions agreed upon in the lease and by state and local statutes as to what sort of extra fees you can charge. Usually the lease will specify a late fee, but if it doesn’t, then you can’t retroactively change your mind and decide to charge one. And remember, no matter how you personally feel about any late-rent situation, it constitutes a violation of the lease that was signed by all parties, and this effectively makes it a breach of contract.
Step 2: The Pay or Quit Notice
This is a more official document than the Late Rent Notice and is technically the first step in the eviction process. It shows the tenant you’re serious about pursuing action and is delivered in person to the tenant on the day 6 if the rent is still late. It needs to clearly convey your intent to evict, the amount of money you’re owed (including all late fees), and the date by which they need to pay it. If you have an eviction attorney, this is something he or she can draft. Post it on the door of the unit or deliver it to the tenant in person. You may also want to mail one to him or her as a back-up measure. After this, you will have to wait a certain period of time until you can file eviction papers– depending on the state, it’s usually around 3-5 days, so check your local statutes.
Step 3: The Last Resort: Legal Action
If all else fails and the tenant still doesn’t pay, get an eviction lawyer. At the earliest possible opportunity (a.k.a. when the Pay or Quit waiting period ends), file a tenant-landlord complaint in court. In many places, it is illegal to evict a tenant until all court precedings are over, and this can take months. You’ll need to pay a fee and thoroughly complete all paperwork before you get a date for a hearing. When the day comes for you to head into court, know ahead of time what you’re going to say and have all your documented evidence prepared.
When dealing with a tenant who pays late or partial rent, some landlords will recommend inspecting the unit as soon as possible to make sure that your property isn’t being damaged. You can usually only enter the unit with the renter’s permission. After obtaining this, they recommend that you document and take pictures of deficiencies. Once you’ve identified these, fix those which are obligated to be taken care of by the landlord and ask that the tenants fix those which are their obligation. Schedule another inspection to make sure both parties have addressed the problems. Keep all documents in case you need them in court.
Remember, it is never acceptable or legal to lock someone out or shut off utilities before the eviction process is complete. Equally illegal are threats, humiliation, or physically attempting to remove the tenant. Not only can these be morally questionable, but an ex-tenant can easily turn around and sue you for unlawful eviction or harassment. As frustrating as it can be, let the courts do their job.