Q: My husband owns a house that we lived in for many years. A couple of years ago, we moved, but because the market was so bad we decided not to sell the old house and instead just use it as a rental until someday when the price goes up. So we rented to a single mom with two young children and thought we were doing a good thing. That was last summer and it’s been a nightmare since. We set the rent very low, $1,300 per month, thinking she would take care of the property because she was getting such a good deal. Well, the place is a wreck now. She’s never paid the rent on time, but now she hasn’t paid anything in three months. We don’t know what to do. My husband went over there this week and told her that if she didn’t pay we were going to evict her. She said she had a good lawyer who would sue us for being slum landlords. Mr. Jones, that house was our pride and joy. We raised our three children there and the home was immaculate when she moved in. Had she ever asked us to fix something we would have, no questions asked. We don’t know what to do. Help.
A: First of all, regular readers will recall that I’m a big fan of professional property management companies. Owning rentals, regardless of how many or how few, is a business. A very legally technical business. There’s a reason why property management companies exist. They are not a guarantee that a tenant won’t turn out to be a mistake. In real estate there are no guarantees, as many homebuyers have learned over the past five years. But a property management company has seen it all and they take all possible precautions to protect the homeowner.
But getting back to your problem, the first thing I’ll tell you is to relax. You’ve been taken advantage of by somebody who undoubtedly has done this to other landlords before. She will threaten you in order to buy as much time in the property as possible. And the longer you let her stay there the more damage she’s going to do.
Regardless of what she says, or does, or threatens to do, you treat the situation the same as you would anytime you have a tenant who is behind in their rent and you can’t work it out. You evict them.
The process is technical, but usually progresses fairly quickly. I can give you a quick overview, which hopefully will calm your nerves, but don’t try this yourself. As a landlord, if you mess up on one box of any one of the forms you have to use, you could lose at trial and have to start the process all over again.
First, you serve her with a Three Day Notice to Pay Rent or Quit. There is specific language that is required in the notice and you should demand all of the back rent that is owed.
Assuming she doesn’t pay by the end of the third day, you file a lawsuit in the Superior Court. This type of lawsuit is called an unlawful detainer and it is handled differently than any other kind of lawsuit. It is entitled to preference, meaning that instead of waiting a year to get to trial you can get in front of a judge within a few weeks.
You have someone, like the Sheriff or a process server, serve her with the lawsuit paperwork. If she doesn’t file an answer with the court in five days, you submit some more paperwork to the court to get a default judgment, including a judgment for the back rent she owes you.
In that paperwork you will have drafted a document known as a Writ of Possession. Once this is signed by the court clerk, you take it to the Sheriff’s office. They then schedule a date and time where a deputy Sheriff will come to the house and physically remove the occupants. You will want to be there with a locksmith. If your tenant does file an answer to the lawsuit, you will submit yet another paper asking the court to set a trial date as soon as possible. At the trial you will testify about the things you wrote in your email to me.
More times than not, a tenant will file an answer but never intend to actually come to court. They are just buying another week in the property. If your tenant doesn’t show, you’ll win your case if the paperwork was filled out correctly, get the writ, take it to the Sheriff, and schedule a lockout.
Again, I don’t suggest you try this without an attorney. The system is so technical that even lawyers occasionally argue over what the law requires. If you wind up in court, you’ve really got to know what you’re doing. Once you get the property back, and have made the repairs, find a property management company so you greatly reduce the likelihood that you’ll find yourself in this position again.
Tim Jones is a real estate attorney in Fairfield. If you have any real estate questions you would like answered in this column you can contact him at SolanoScene@TJones-Law.com.