Reasons You Can Sue Your Tenant
There are certain times when landlord-tenant conflicts cannot be easily resolved. Unfortunately, sometimes the only way these problems can be resolved is to take your tenant to court. Learn the pros and cons of going to court, as well as twelve reasons you can sue your tenant.
Benefits of Suing Your Tenant
While filing a lawsuit against your tenant can be stressful, it does have certain advantages.
- Tenant Could Settle to Avoid Court: The first advantage, and it is the one many people hope for when filing a lawsuit, is that the case will never actually go to court. The hope is that the tenant will receive the court summons and not want to deal with the hassle of going to court and potentially losing anyway. They would rather pay the amount the landlord is requesting or compromise on paying a lesser amount that the landlord agrees to accept. This would also keep the tenant’s name off the court records.
- Recover Money Owed: Sometimes taking a tenant to court is the only way to receive the money you are owed from the tenant. If a tenant does not believe they are responsible for paying for damages at the property, it can be very difficult to get them to pay the money unless they are legally obligated to do so.
- Receive Additional Damages: In court, you can sue the tenant for the actual money you are owed, but also for additional damages. For example, if a tenant breaks their lease and moves out early, you can sue them for the rent that is due for the remainder of the lease and potentially the costs associated with finding a new tenant to fill the vacancy.
- Clear Your Name: Suing your tenant and winning will provide legal proof that you were in the right.
- The Case Will Be on Record: You will have a record that you won a court case against your tenant. This can be beneficial if the tenant ever tries to sue you at some point in the future. A victory will also show that you are a landlord who follows the law and knows the proper procedures and practices for running a rental property.
Risks of Suing Your Tenant
Suing your tenant has benefits, but there are also certain risks involved. There is no guarantee of victory and you could trigger a counterclaim from your tenant.
- You Could Lose: Filing a lawsuit is not a guarantee that you will win the lawsuit. You could spend your time, energy and money going to court and lose.
- Could Win, But Never See the Money: You could be awarded the money owed to you by the court, but you may never actually collect this money. Although the tenant will now have a judgment against them, you could still be trying to chase the tenant down for years to collect the money you are owed.
- Cost: Whether you win or lose, there will still be costs involved with going to court. You will have to pay a court fee just to file your case. This fee is usually minimal, somewhere between $25 and $50. Depending on the nature of your case, you may also have to hire an attorney to represent you, which can get very expensive very quickly.
- Tenant Could Countersue: By initiating a lawsuit, you could anger your tenant, leading them to countersue. You could wind up losing the lawsuit and then have to pay even more money to the tenant in damages and attorney’s fees.
Is suing the only option?
Of course not. You could send a demand letter to the tenant in the hopes that it will be enough to get them to pay what they owe. This letter may be intimidating enough to avoid a court battle. You could also decide to do nothing and just chalk it up any losses as a learning experience.
How to Increase Your Chances of Success
While the judge will use the facts to ultimately decide who wins in court, there are things you can do to improve your chances of success. Proper documentation and preparation can go a long way in strengthening your case.
1. The Sooner the Better
If you are going to sue your tenant, it is in your best interest to do it as soon as possible. There are a few reasons behind this theory:
- It will show that the issue is important to you. If you wait two years to sue a tenant for unpaid rent, the judge may wonder how credible your case is.
- If you do not sue the tenant immediately after move out, you may have a hard time finding the tenant. You can send the notice to the last known address of the tenant, but there is no guarantee that the tenant will actually receive it. If you are serious about getting back money that is owed to you, you should send notice to the tenant as soon as possible after the issue arises.
- As more time goes by, it gets harder to remember the facts. A conflict can be clear as day a month after it happens, but details can be very foggy if a year has passed. If you stumble over the details in court, your story looks less believable. In addition, you may be less passionate about the issue once more time has passed.
- There is a statute of limitations on how long after an incident you have to pursue the matter in court. Depending on the issue, it could be as short as one year or as long as ten years. You can check your local laws to find out how long you have to file suit for a certain issue. Usually, the quicker you can decide if you will pursue a lawsuit, the better.
2. Knowledge of Landlord-Tenant Law Is a Must
Part of being a responsible landlord is knowing the landlord-tenant laws in your state. If you have followed the law from the beginning, then you are increasing your chances of winning in court. If you have not correctly followed the law, you could actually wind up costing yourself more money than you were originally seeking.
For example, a tenant could be awarded two times their security deposit amount if you did not follow proper procedures, such as placing their deposit in a separate banking account or sending them a written itemized list of any deductions taken. Knowing the law will help you properly prepare the documentation you will need for your case. It will also help you look more credible in court.
3. Understand the Rules of the Court
Your case will never actually go to court if you do not follow the correct court procedures. Sometimes you will first have to send a demand letter to the tenant. The tenant will have a certain number of days to respond to this notice before you will be able to file an actual lawsuit.
To file suit, you will have to submit the right forms and additional paperwork and pay a fee to the court. Again, you may only have a certain time after the incident to file suit against the tenant. You also must know if you can represent yourself in court or if you must hire an attorney.
4. Prepare for Court
You will want your case to be as strong as possible when you appear in court. Evidence is the best way to do this; you should keep a separate folder for each tenant that you have which includes any correspondence between you and the tenant.
You should have documentation that goes back to tenant screening, such as:
- A rental application and credit report
- A signed lease agreement
- Security deposit documentation
- Any notices or demands sent to the tenant
- Any complaints against the tenant
- Repairs done inside the tenant’s apartment
- Bills you have incurred because of the tenant
- Bills the tenant has been responsible for
- Complaints by the tenant against you
- Photographs of any damage or any necessary repairs
The more evidence you have that supports your case and shows you have followed the correct rules and procedures under your state’s landlord-tenant law, the better.
5. Show Up
This may seem obvious, but if you do not show up to court when your case is scheduled to be heard, the case will be dismissed, or you will lose if you are countersuing. Make sure you double and triple check the court date. Courts often reschedule cases, so you should call a couple of days in advance to make sure your case is still on schedule.
Reasons You Can Sue Your Tenant
There are endless reasons that you can take a tenant to court. Some of the more common reasons a landlord can sue a tenant include:
- Unpaid Rent: If a tenant has not paid their monthly rent, you can first send them a notice to pay rent or quit. If that does not work, you can file to evict the tenant. At the same time, you can also sue them for any rent they owe.
- Unpaid Utility Bills: If there are any outstanding utility bills at the rental property in the tenant’s name, you can sue the tenant to recover this money. Often, you can deduct this amount from the tenant’s security deposit. If the security deposit is not enough to cover the expense, you can sue in small claims court to recover the rest.
- Damage to the Property: A landlord can sue a tenant if the tenant has caused damage to the property. Again, you can start by deducting the amount of damage from the security deposit. If the security deposit does not cover the amount of damage done, you can take your tenant to court to hopefully get the rest of the money you are owed.
- Unapproved Alterations to the Unit: If the tenant has made changes to the unit without approval, you can sue the tenant to recover the money it will take to restore the unit to its original condition.
- Tenant Owes More Than Security Deposit Amount: If you have taken the maximum amount of deductions from the tenant’s security deposit, but they still owe more, you can try to recover the rest in small claims court.
- Countersue for Security Deposit: A tenant may sue if they believe you wrongly withheld their security deposit. In this case, you can countersue to show you had every legal right to withhold or make deductions from their deposit.
- To Recover Lost Rent From an Illegal Move Out: If the tenant moved out before their lease was actually up, you can take them to court to recover the rent they owed for the remaining time on their lease.
- To Recover Costs to Find a New Tenant After Illegal Move Out: Some states will also allow you to pursue a tenant who has moved out early for the additional expenses you may incur trying to find a new tenant for the unit. This could include things like marketing costs and utilities.
- Expenses to Dispose of Tenant’s Abandoned Property: You can sue a tenant for the cost to dispose of or to store their abandoned property.
- Tenant Used the Property for Illegal Dealings: If a tenant used the property for some illegal means, you can sue them to recover damages.
- Illegally Have a Pet: If you have a no pets policy and you find out the tenant has an animal, you can sue them for damages and for any additional damage the pet has caused at the property.
- Other Breaches to the Lease Agreement: If the tenant has broken any other clause of the lease and it has caused you monetary, emotional or physical harm, taking the tenant to court could be the way to collect the money owed to you.