What to Do If You Have a Tenant Not Paying Rent

As a landlord, having a tenant not paying rent can mean more than just losing income. If you’re a small landlord with just one or a few properties, you may not be able to pay the mortgage or even your living expenses. Here are the steps you should take to get paid.

Give them a call.

One of the most common causes of a tenant not paying rent is the tenant simply forgetting what day it is. Give them a call politely reminding them that rent is due. They’ll usually pay right away, or if they’re having trouble, they’ll let you know, so you won’t be left wondering what’s going on.

Some landlords use a monthly email newsletter as a rent payment reminder. Offering automatic payments is another good way to ensure that the rent always arrives on time without any reminders.

Suggest they use a rental assistance program.

If your tenant tells you they can’t pay, suggest that they use a rental assistance program. These programs help tenants avoid eviction when they lose their jobs, have medical difficulties, or face other hardships. There are both permanent programs and special programs created in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a landlord, it can be to your benefit to familiarize yourself with the rental assistance programs in your area. This can help you get paid when you have a tenant who doesn’t know what help is available.

Give formal written notice to pay.

If the rent remains late, send a letter via certified mail with a return receipt requested informing the tenant that they must pay the rent or vacate the premises. This is a required step in the eviction process in most states, but it doesn’t mean that you have to follow through with an eviction – you want to make sure your rights are fully protected.

Usually, the tenant must be given a deadline of at least three days, but you can extend it at your option. Extending the deadline may be a good idea if a previously reliable tenant informs you that their paycheck was late or has another excuse you consider valid and they’ve given you a date they will be able to pay you by.

Note that state laws will set the notice requirement for your state. You may also have stricter local city or county laws than your state laws. Talk to a landlord-tenant attorney if you aren’t sure what you need to do to give a tenant proper notice.

Don’t change the locks.

No matter how unreasonable your tenant is being or how much you’ve grown to dislike them, you cannot change the locks, turn off their electricity, or take other steps to force them out of the rental. This could give them grounds for a lawsuit against you, and in some states, locking a tenant out without a court order could be considered a crime.

File for eviction.

Your final step is to go to court to file for an eviction. You will have to file a complaint explaining why you want to evict your tenant. Your tenant has the right to respond and have a hearing in court before being evicted for failure to pay rent.

Some tenants may assert a legal reason that they shouldn’t have to pay you, such as you didn’t do maintenance. Other tenants use the eviction process to stall their eviction even when they know they can’t win. A landlord-tenant lawyer can help you argue against the tenant’s defenses and move the eviction process along as quickly as possible.

At your court hearing, the judge will want to see the lease agreement to know how much was owed. If you don’t have a written lease, you may be able to use other evidence to prove what the tenant owed. If the tenant doesn’t provide proof of payment, the judge will usually order an eviction. The tenant will then be given a final deadline to remove their belongings, after which you can change the locks and dispose of their property per local law.

Do you need a lawyer to handle a tenant not paying rent?

Eviction for a tenant not paying rent can be fairly straightforward. However, a tenant may try to use court procedures or legal defenses to stall the eviction. If you’ve never handled a legal eviction on your own, you might want to schedule a consultation with a landlord-tenant attorney in your area. To learn about when you need a lawyer or when to find one, check out this guide from Nolo.