How to Collect Back Rent from Your Tenants

Posted by Ishbir Rakhra on 24th September 2013

Overdue Rent

Taking quick action after a missed rent payment is the key to successfully collecting rent and maintaining a good relationship with your tenants. Understanding your rights as a landlord, while also communicating with a tenant about his situation in a respectful way, helps you make good decisions about how to handle late payments.

Understanding Landlord and Tenant Laws

As a landlord or property manager, you should have a thorough knowledge of landlord-tenant laws in the state and town or city where your rental property is located. You can get this information from these sources:

  • Your state legislature’s website.
  • Your state’s attorney general’s website.
  • Your municipal government’s website.
  • Your state’s consumer affairs department.
  • The Legal Aid Society that serves your area.
  • A state or local tenant union website.
  • An experienced real estate or landlord rights solicitor.

All states give tenants a right to due process before they can be legally evicted. In most places, this means that:

  • Only a judge can order an eviction. Without a court order, you can’t legally evict a tenant.
  • In most places, only the sheriff’s office or a court appointed bailff can enforce an eviction. This means you have to schedule a time for them to come to the unit and force the tenant to leave.
  • You cannot change the locks on the tenant’s doors, cut off his utilities or attempt to remove the tenant or his property from the premises until law enforcement arrives to enforce the eviction.
  • Self-help evictions can backfire. A tenant may be able to sue you, or even have you arrested, if you don’t follow the eviction process in your state.

How to Approach a Tenant about a Late Rent Payment

Asking a tenant for back rent can be a touchy matter, particularly if you aren’t comfortable with confrontation. Unfortunately, asking for rent is part of your job as a landlord or property manager, so you’ll need to get used to this part of your work.

Before approaching the tenant, think about your desired outcome: Many good tenants occasionally have financial difficulties. Keeping good tenants is important to your business, so you’ll want to work with these folks. On the other hand, if a tenant has a history of late payments or causing trouble, this might be a good opportunity to get her out of your building.

When You Want to Keep the Tenant

Here’s a strategy for approaching a good tenant who is behind on rent:

  • Contact the tenant directly, preferably by phone or personal visit. Politely explain that the rent is due and ask about payment. Remind the tenant of any late fees that he is obligated to pay in addition to the rent.
  • Ask the tenant about the reasons for the delinquency. This information can help you decide whether you want to work with the tenant or ask her to move.
  • Offer to make changes to his current payment agreement if doing so would help the tenant. This may mean setting a different due date for the rent or even offering a rent reduction.
  • Set a payment date, if you hope to keep the tenant, and put the agreement in writing. Your payment arrangement should include payment back rent, any late fees, as well as any rent currently due.
  • Be cautious about accepting partial rent payments: In many areas, accepting partial rent can delay your ability to evict the tenant.
  • Make it clear that your payment arrangement is a one-time courtesy. If you continually accept late rent, you’ve set a legal precedent that your tenant may be able to use against you if you later decide to evict her.
  • If the tenant is in a situation where regular rent payment isn’t possible, try to negotiate a move-out date.
  • Begin eviction proceedings immediately if the tenant does not honor the payment agreement or move out on his own.

When You Want the Tenant Out

If you don’t want to work with the tenant and prefer that she move, you’ll need to take a very different approach. Learn the law and begin eviction proceedings as soon as possible.

Many tenants will pay the rent as soon as they realize that you are serious about evicting them. Even if the tenant doesn’t pay the back rent, a formal eviction will get the tenant out of the rental unit so that you can find a new renter.

  • In some places, being late on rent once isn’t enough to evict the tenant, providing that she gets current on the rent within a specific period. Unless you can prove that the tenant has violated the lease in some other way, you may have to wait until the lease is up before you can force the tenant to leave.
  • Follow the Section 8 requirements when serving the tenant with notice of your intention to start eviction proceedings. The delivery method does have an affect on when the notice is served, so be sure you understand how you have to deliver this notice to your tenant.
  • Attempt to contact the tenant directly about the situation. Explain that you are unwilling to keep him as a tenant and ask him to leave in accordance with the notice. Explain that if the tenant doesn’t pay the back rent and leave on his own, you’ll be forced to take him to court for the back rent. A court judgment will affect his credit and ability to find a new place to live.
  • Begin eviction proceedings. Your solicitor can do this for you or you can go to the courthouse and do it yourself.

The best case scenario is that your tenant’s financial issues are a temporary matter and that they will she’ll be able to pay her rent on time in the future. By acting quickly and knowing the law, you’ll be able to minimize any losses caused by the late rent while ensuring that your tenants understand the importance of on time rent payments.

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