I got into the landlord business purely by accident. Everything was going well, at least, for a while.
I thought I was lucky since my screening process consisted of a neighbor knowing a person who needed a place. Eventually, not surprisingly, my tenant stopped paying rent.
Since I didn’t have much experience as a landlord at the time, I listened to my tenant’s excuses and regularly took rent payments late. Before too long, my tenant was six months behind on rent.
I learned a thing or two since then, and now I know what to do when a tenant stops paying rent. If you’re a landlord, you should know, too.
1. Talk With Your Tenant
There’s a phrase I learned from Dr. Phil: “You teach people how to treat you.” By being a pushover with my tenant, they learned that when their bills piled up, rent could be skipped here and there without any repercussions.
Instead, I should have talked with my tenant. I should have asked what the problem was. It’s a good thing to be understanding, but tenants need to realize that they need to pay rent on time, or they can’t stay.
If you don’t pay, you can’t stay.
Let them know that you still need to pay your bills and, therefore, can’t afford not to receive rent.
The first time rent is late, let your tenant know that because you understand that renting this place has become a hardship, you’re willing to let them out of their lease early without penalty if they leave by the end of the week. If they don’t want to do that, let them know that you’ll be giving them a formal eviction notice.
That might be all it takes to get your tenant back on track and paying rent on time. When faced with the idea of needing to leave the property, quickly finding another place, and coming up with moving costs (not to mention paying rent and security deposit elsewhere), paying rent to you will probably become a top priority.
2. Send a “Pay or Quit” Notice
Almost every state requires a landlord to send a “Notice to pay or quit” when a tenant fails to pay rent. Basically, this is a formal letter (or email) that says “Hey, you forgot to pay rent! You have X days to pay it in full, or your lease will be terminated and you’ll have to move out.”
In most states, this “X” notice period is short, in the range of 3 to 5 days. If they don’t pay, and they don’t move out, then you can formally terminate their agreement and they lose the right to occupy the dwelling. If they still refuse to leave, then you have to file an action with your local eviction court.
3. File an Eviction Action
The only way to legally “force” a tenant out of a property is with the sheriff’s help. A landlord is never allowed to lock out a tenant or turn off essential utilities.
If you have a rogue tenant, you might have to go down to your local courthouse and fill out the proper paperwork for an eviction hearing. They will likely want to see the “Notice to Pay or Quit” that you sent, so be sure to bring that with you.
Once you pay the court fees, the administrator will schedule your hearing, which is usually 2-6 weeks out. You might be responsible for serving the tenant the subpoena, but some courts will do this for you.
Then, show up on your court date, explain your case, and hopefully you will win a judgement against the tenant. Then you can hire the sheriff to remove the tenant by force.
4. Pay Your Tenant to Leave: Cash for Keys
If your tenant doesn’t pay the rent after your talk, you still have a chance to avoid the eviction process. You can make a deal. If your tenant isn’t paying the rent because of financial problems, they might be motivated to move pronto if you pay them.
Yes, I know that this idea feels wrong. They owe you money, so why should you pay them?
You need to get your emotions out of this, and weigh the costs and benefits in a businesslike manner to help you make the decision. An eviction will get the tenant out. But it won’t be immediate. Check with your jurisdiction to find out how long evictions typically take.
Hint: Evictions generally take longer than you want to wait, typically one to three months.
Evictions generally (always) take longer than you want to wait.
If your tenant leaves immediately because you paid them, say, $250, $500, or even $1,000, you will probably be better off, not to mention the stress you’ll save yourself over the next month or more from going through the eviction process then trying to collect on the judgment.
5. Consider Hiring a Property Manager or a Lawyer
If you just aren’t the type to deal with a tenant who stops paying rent, or if you aren’t enforcing timely rent payments each month, you might be better off hiring a property manager. The same tenant who might try to get away with not paying you for a month or two probably won’t try that once a professional property manager is in charge.
The management company is a neutral third-party with systems in place for handling unpleasant situations.
Alternatively, you could hire a lawyer who will try to hunt down your money and barrage the tenant with notices and formal letters.
Credit to Laura Agadoni
Laura is a landlord, journalist, and author of New Home Journal: Record All the Repairs, Upgrades and Home Improvements During Your Years at…. Her articles appear in various publications such as Trulia, The Houston Chronicle, The Motley Fool, SFGate, Zacks, The Penny Hoarder, and loanDepot.