Almost every landlord will face the problem of a tenant not paying rent at some point in the landlord-tenant relationship. How you handle the issue of non-payment of rent could make a huge difference in your ultimate ability to recover rent. There are certain things a landlord should do when a tenant fails to pay rent – and certain things a landlord should never do.
First, talk to your tenant in a civil manner (a display of temper or making threats will accomplish nothing but permanently souring the landlord-tenant relationship). Find out what the problem is. Often a tenant’s first response is to claim that he or she did not pay the rent because of some problem in the rental unit that needs to be corrected. This is seldom the truth. You will have to read between the lines and try to uncover the real reason why the tenant is not paying. You will probably find that the tenant is having financial problems. If this is the case, then the landlord-tenant relationship is sadly coming to an end.
In that case, the next thing you should do is make a demand for the rent. This is a legal requirement and you cannot bring a non-payment action to remove your tenant unless you have first made a demand for the rent. A demand can take virtually any form, and can even be oral. That is the simplest and often the best form of demand. Simply speak to the tenant and say, “I demand that you pay the rent,” or words to that effect. Then write down the details of that conversation, including the date, time, place and words that you used. Your landlord-tenant attorney will need to know that information.
Some landlords do not have a written lease agreement, but rather have an oral month-to-month tenancy agreement. If you are a landlord that does have a written lease with your tenant (which is not advisable), then the next step is to review your lease to see what it says about giving the tenant additional written notices. Many of the form leases landlords find on the Internet and rely on require the landlord to serve a five-day notice on the tenant if the tenant defaults in paying rent. Do not attempt to do this on your own; speak with your landlord-tenant attorney first. Your landlord-tenant attorney will review your lease agreement and will make sure that all of its requirements have been met before filing papers in court. Once all of that is out of the way, your landlord-tenant attorney can bring a non-payment action for you.
There are also some things a landlord should not do. First, never let the tenant get further in debt by taking no action. In other words, you must act. As a landlord, you must remember that you are in a business relationship, and you must avoid being guided by personal feelings. Allowing a tenant to fall behind in paying rent sets up a repeating pattern of behavior. It is a fact in landlord-tenant relationships that once the relationship begins to deteriorate, it almost never rehabilitates, and will generally continue to get worse. So waste no time in retaining an experienced landlord-tenant attorney to help you.
Finally, there is something a landlord should never do: shutting off the tenant’s utilities, such as heat, water and electricity. You may think that by doing this you will force the tenant to pay the rent. This is a huge mistake and nothing could be further from the truth. Depriving your tenant of basic utilities is illegal and could lead to you being arrested and criminally prosecuted. It also provides the tenant with a defense to non-payment of rent, i.e., a tenant may be excused from paying rent during any period in which there is no heat, water or electricity. So, not only will you not accomplish your goal of getting paid, but you could end up with serious legal problems and compromise your ability to evict your tenant. Rather than taking matters into your own hands, you should instead retain an attorney specializing in landlord-tenant law to handle it for you.