Avoiding Pitfalls in the Tenant Eviction Process: A Six-Step Program
You thought you had done everything right. You conducted thorough tenant background checks. You had a comprehensive lease agreement. You gave your tenant proper notice when you had to enter the property to make repairs. Heck, you’ve even made repairs quickly. In short, you’ve been a model landlord.
But now your tenant isn’t paying the rent. Or has decided to breed German shepherd puppies despite a no-pets policy. Or has committed some other offense that makes it clear that your relationship has to end.
Yes, nothing ruins your rental unit’s ROI like an eviction.
The good news is that acknowledging you have to evict a tenant is the first step. The other good news is that we’ve created a six-step program to help you avoid common eviction pitfalls.
Step One – Remember it’s not Personal, it’s Business
Most landlords we know – actually every landlord we know – went into the rental business to make money. It is a business, which should be operated ethically, but with the same systematized practices that make any business successful.
Leaving your emotions at the door is critical to seeing a tenant eviction through to the end. Just as a bank, for example, follows policies and procedures for managing mortgages (some of which may end in foreclosure), so too must you follow a clockwork process for managing your rentals (some of which might end in eviction). First day the rent is late: serve eviction notice. First day eviction notice waiting period is up: file in court for eviction. First day eviction hearing is available: schedule hearing. First day eviction put-out is available: schedule it. Stick to a systematized process with every property, every tenant, every time.
Step Two – Know the Tenant’s Rights
Your obligation to the tenant begins even before he or she takes possession of the property. As soon as you begin advertising your property you’re beholden to a number of laws like the Fair Housing Act, which prohibits discriminatory practices. Once the tenant moves in, you are required to follow even more regulations, including when you can enter the property, what repairs you’re required to make and what late fees you can charge.
When it comes to evictions, you will need to do some homework to make sure you understand the tenant’s rights in your state or province, but you can count on having to serve a written eviction notice (the number of days will vary but is often between three and thirty days). You’ll also need to stop the eviction proceedings if the tenant pays or otherwise fixes the lease violation, and avoid “self-help” eviction techniques like changing the locks or removing property until the tenant is officially out.
Step Three – Know Your Landlord’s Rights
In general, the eviction process tends to be tenant-friendly, which means you may feel as though you’re bending over backwards to get what is legally yours – and unpaid rent is indeed legally yours. You have the right to receive rent on time, every month. You have the right to enter your rental property with proper notice. You have the right to expect that your rental property will be free from excessive damage and abuse.
However, more than anything, you are entitled to legal satisfaction if your tenant doesn’t uphold their end of the bargain. Following your state’s eviction procedures to the letter should, in the end, enable you to remove a tenant who has failed to comply with the terms of the lease agreement. The process will require work on your part, but you’ll get there.
Step Four – Know What Your State or Province Requires
You know that bit in the previous paragraph about following your state’s eviction procedures to the letter? Highlight that. Write it on a sticky note and post it to your mirror. Tattoo it on your hand. Failing to understand what your state requires (or your municipality, because requirements can vary even within a state) and not strictly following those requirements is the biggest mistake a rookie landlord makes when trying to evict a tenant.
The great thing about having a tenant eviction process to follow is that you don’t have to second-guess your next move. If your tenant has failed to pay his rent but the state says you need to give seven days’ notice before beginning eviction proceedings, then make sure you serve that notice as soon as possible. Even if you’ve talked to the tenant and he’s explained why the rent is late and when it will be paid, still serve the eviction notice immediately. That way if the tenant doesn’t pay the rent as promised – surprise! – you’ll have already gotten the legal ball rolling.
Step Five – Maintain Scrupulous Records
Even in this digital age, when it comes to the tenant eviction process, paper is your best friend. As you know by now, there are plenty of legal forms involved, and you’ll need copies of them all if you find yourself in court. Judges love well-prepared plaintiffs, and you’re much more likely to get a favorable judgment if you have a record of every action you’ve taken… assuming those actions are in compliance with local laws.
Time is money, and having to start the eviction process all over again because you forgot to issue a notice or failed to serve it the right way can be a costly error. Every day that the tenant fails to pay the rent is one more day that you let him keep your money. Even if you’re chronically disorganized, you need to maintain scrupulous records (remember this is a business!). You may find that keeping an eviction record timeline can help you stay on track.
Step Six – Get Your Money
Unless you’re running a charity, you’re in this thing to get paid. This may mean working with the tenant, perhaps by setting up a payment plan. If you go this route, though, try to take responsibility for payment out of the tenant’s hands by having the amount automatically drafted from her paycheck or bank account on the day she's paid. A word of caution here however: accepting a partial payment could stop the eviction clock and force you to restart the eviction process all over.
If you’ve started the tenant eviction process, don’t hesitate to go after all of the back rent you’re owed. Failure to do so essentially means that you paid your tenant’s rent for them. You might be able to apply the security deposit against money owed, but once again you’ll need to follow your state’s laws regarding tenant notification.
Even if the tenant is successfully removed from the property, you may need to file in small claims court to get any back rent, fees and damages owed. You may have to enlist the services of a collection agency to get your money, and even then you may never see it. Wage garnishment or property liens (if the tenant happened to own property) are other options, but may not be worth the time and money. In fact, some landlords are willing to accept cash for keys, which means you actually pay the tenant to hand over the keys and leave. Galling? Yes. But you may find that avoiding the tenant eviction process in the first place is the fastest way to remove terrible tenants, and ultimately mean a faster replacement tenant in place paying rent.
Which, of course, is the seventh step!