5 Things to Do When a Tenant Stops Paying Rent

Written on May 16, 2017 by , updated on October 11, 2018

Tenant not payingI 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.

Related: Screening Tenants with Cozy

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.

Yikes!

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.

Related: 10 Types of Notices for Every Landlord

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 judgment against the tenant. Then you can hire the sheriff to remove the tenant by force.

Related: The Eviction Process in 8 Easy Steps

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.

Related:

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.

Related: Should I Hire a Professional Property Manager?

Bottom Line

Take it seriously the first time rent is late. You want to stop the behavior right away before your tenant stops paying rent and the situation gets out of hand.

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32 CommentsLeave a Comment

  • Domenick

    Nice article Laura. My advice is to always charge a late fee the first time and every time. Establish the rules and stick to them or else your tenants will see your lease terms as mere suggestions instead of a binding agreement.

    Also, I understand the desire to pay cash for keys, but I feel that only reinforces the behavior and sets up the next landlord for trouble. Some bad tenants have learned how to play the game. Always talk to at least two prior landlords to screen for these past behaviors.

    Domenick | AccidentalRental.com

  • Crabby

    Well, you can always make sure the lawn gets mowed every day at times they are sleeping.

  • Commercial Property in Udaipur

    Thank you for sharing excellent information. Mainly it is beneficial to real estate people who give their homes to rent. Now a days many tenants are doing like this. So please have a look on this article.

  • Linda Hirsch

    So my tenant will not sign the non renewal notice I gave her for 12-31-17. She says she will not sign it because we do not have a signed lease agreement. She did say that she will be out the end of December, 2017. She owes me $30.00 for October rent not paid and $267.00 from November and I added a verbal $50.00 late fee which I’m sure will not stand up in court. She is using her baby as an excuse for not getting out after I gave her the pay or vacate form last night. I just want to get the past due rent and get paid for December. What are my rights as a landlord?
    Thanks for any help!
    Linda

  • Kayfabe

    I think it’s horrible that you think all tenants simply refuse to pay. People have financial issues, genuine reasons for money troubles and most people pay rent before any other bills if at all possible. If they are not they have legitimate financial hardships and making someone homeless for ny reason is WRONG. You may have bills to pay, but the tenant could be ill, or out of work, or worse. Consider their feelings too.

    • Sylwia

      Obviously you are a tenant. A landlord is not your mom or dad that is there to care for your financial issues. If you have no money to pay you need to move.

    • Hmmmm

      I agree why do people that are strangers think landlords are suppose to support them. Landlords have to pay the mortgage, taxes, insurance etc. And the tenant just wants to leach off of innocent people. I allways paid my rent or I moved. I have family and worked 2 jobs for many years. Nobody gave me a free ride.

    • Unknown

      I’m sorry to say this but it sounds like you are one of those tenant who doesn’t think it’s necessay to pay for the roof over your head before anything else. Have put into consideration the landlord situation. Do you not think the landlord have bills to pay and mortgage, taxes and insurance to pay as well? Tenants are just self centered and out to rip innocent people suffer.

  • Monika

    If the tenant is behind on rent for 6-7 months, can landlord refuse repairs (i.e. Heating) until tenant is fully caught up?

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Monika,
      In a word, no. It’s a mistake to combine issues. Paying rent has nothing to do with heat. So, for the first issue of non payment of rent, if a tenant is that far behind, you should evict. Why keep someone in who’s not paying you rent? The second issue falls under a landlord’s duty to provide a habitable dwelling. Heat is necessary during the colder months, so you must provide heat to your tenants.

      • Monika Patel

        We filed for eviction and have a court date next week. We did attend to the heating issue when first reported in November. Tenant withheld informing of additional issues until late Jan, at which time we suggested getting space heaters we will deduct from rent. Today when the technician and I arrived, tenants had changed the locks and we had no access to our property to address the issue. So Just curious to see how much leverage tenants have in court at this point.

        • Laura Agadoni

          Hi Monika,
          I’m not sure what you mean by “attend to the heating issue,” but if you tried to provide heat and were unable to, you may need to install a new heating system, not charge for space heaters. A tenant changing the locks is a third issue. Depending on your lease and the state in which you live, the tenant may not be allowed to do that. If that is the case, you would need to re-key, give the tenant a copy of the key, and charge the tenant for the cost to re-key. In any event, you need access to the property to make repairs.

  • María Ayala

    I found this very helpful. I’m especially interested because one of my father’s renters has not fully paid rent for well over 2 years. Renter owes over $11,000. Yes, over ELEVEN THOUSAND DOLLARS. My father has listened to the renter’s issue of not having the money. Month after month after month… Yet they recently got a new Jeep. Kids have iPhones. And they like to shop at high-end stores. My father has given them multiple dates: “You have until this day (usually gives about 2 months) to pay or start looking somewhere else.”

    His fear is that since there is nothing on paper (contract), except for payment receipts, then if he tries to kick them out for sure, they’ll sue. And the man does not want to pay for a lawyer.

    Any advice???

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Maria,
      I am going to assume that there is no lease here, meaning that your father’s tenants are on a month-to-month basis. If that is the case, depending on your jurisdiction, your father just needs to give the tenants a 30- or 60-day notice to vacate. Easy peasy. If your father kept good records, he could then sue in small claims court for money he is owed.

  • Kay

    We have a tenant that was renting a room in my home. No papers written up, verbal agreement of $200.00 every two weeks and $50.00 WiFi. He has been back in a month, no word. He owes back rent and WiFi. We have his bed, tv, clothes and tools in garage. Can we hold these until we get paid.

  • Shelia

    I currently have a tenant who is a single parent with three small children. Before renting from me they were homeless. Her husband put them out in the middle of the night. To make a long story short, I did my homework & she did make enough to pay the rent. Her income consisted of salary plus child support equally over 3k monthly. The rent is 1600 + utilities. Excuse after excuse she is now five months behind in rent $8375 & $1185 in utilities. What can be done legally to collect the $9560 that is owed?

  • Sue

    I have a renter in the state of New York (Rochester). She is a single mom and always behind on her rent ($1200 a month). Never pays the late fee. I didn’t realize it but when she didn’t pay the water bills for the last 2 years they were put onto our taxes so we paid them not knowingly. She had a yearly lease but our property manager didn’t renew it so I guess she is on a month to month. How quickly can we get her out? I am worried she will just keep living there not paying for anything or ruining the house before she leaves. She is always calling in maintenance requests also. Once out, can we recoup any of what she owes us? Any suggestions?

    • Laura Agadoni

      Hi Sue,
      First off, what does your property manager do for you? This might be of interest to you: https://www.landlordology.com/fire-property-manager/. Second, you can look up your state law here: https://www.landlordology.com/state-laws/. I think you need to give one month’s notice to vacate in New York. Regarding what you can recoup, that depends on your lease. Does it specify late fees and what they are? Does it say who is responsible for paying utilities? If tenant is responsible, does it state the penalty for nonpayment? Your property manager should be able to help you with lease terms.

      • Sue

        Thank you for your comments. Do you think telling a tenant you will be selling the property would help to get them out? Tired of the person always paying late and being behind. Any ideas on how to find a good handyman for a city you don’t live in?

        Thanks again.

        • Laura Agadoni

          Hi Sue,
          If you want your tenant out, just give them a 30-day notice to vacate (or however much you must give per your state law). You don’t have to give a reason. Regarding finding a handyman, I recommend you do an Internet search for what you need done in the town your rental property is in. Look at the reviews people get. Call around to speak with 3 people and to get quotes.

  • Susana Mora

    My tenant is suppose to leave in 2 weeks per the 60 day notice I mailed her. She did not pay rent this month and is now claiming there is no ensurance from the owner of upkeep of the property. She requested 2 weeks ago to fix the outside flood lights because a homeless guy slept near the entry of the property and we have not fixed. Could not get a electrician out until this week. what are my rights? Im about to send her a notice to pay or quit.

  • Jenny

    My tenants(been there 6 yrs) were always a couple months behind in payments- 2 or 3 months.
    Real trouble started when our building went through mandatory new window installation project.
    Tenants claimed the construction made the unit un-inhabitable– we waived 1 mo pay. then, they fell behind in rent for 4 months. After the installation, new blinds need to be installed. So we gave them option to get the blinds and deduct from the back rent. NO action taken. So we told them to pay the rent and we will install the blinds. Now, they are complaining that unit is too old and not managed well— need new dishwasher, sinks, etc. We have served them 5 day notice to quit via email and text. Can we hold off these services until the rent is paid?

  • Lisa

    My LLC has a rental tenant who was 4 months behind on rent, about $9000, so he voluntarily moved out of the condo. I never took any steps toward the eviction process while he was living there.
    Now I’m wondering what action should my LLC take in order to possibly get paid what is owed?

  • Maxy

    I own a duplex both with tenants living in them. The property is on the market since the beginning of Aug’18. Both units refused to pay rent started on Sept rent and won’t give me any reason why. I served them 3 day notice to pay or quit with no response. I filed unlawful detainer on both on 9/17/18. They filed demurrer on the 3 day notice to pay or quit and judge favored on me on 9/26/18. Today is the last day for them to response on the eviction and they ask for jury trial and waived on the jury fee. The back unit tenant 6 months lease ended on 9/30/18 and they have no intention of moving out. I served the back unit 30 day notice for non-renewal of tenancy. How can they do this?

  • Peter

    Hi Laura!

    Great article!

    I have a question:

    Say that I serve a 3-Day notice. The tenant then makes their payment on Cozy, but Cozy takes about seven days to process. I assume that I need to wait beyond the three days to see whether the payment processes or fails before proceeding with eviction?

    Is this correct as you see it?

    Thanks :-)

    • Lucas Hall

      Hi Peter,

      Just like a physical check, the tenant always initially gets credit for the payment as soon as they hand you a check, or in the case of online payments, initiates the payment. So if they initiate the payment within those 3 days, you have to give them credit. I suppose if the money doesn’t clear after the fact, then you could terminate the lease immediately since they didn’t actually pay within 3 days.

      Cozy will know very quickly (long before 7 days, and sometimes within hours), if there are insufficient funds in the tenants account. So generally speaking, Cozy’s processing time shouldn’t interfere much within the 3-day notice.

      I hope that helps. Feel free to reach out to the Cozy support team with Cozy related questions. They can be reached at support@cozy.co.

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