How to Collect Unpaid Rent Once a Tenant Moves Out: Landlord Tips

Have you ever faced the headache of tenants vacating with unpaid rental balances? Read on to learn options for recovering the income you're rightfully owed.

By
Nichole Stohler
|
Last Updated
September 22, 2023
How to Collect Unpaid Rent Once a Tenant Moves Out: Landlord Tips

Have tenants vacated without settling their rental debts? As a landlord, rent remaining unpaid after a tenant's departure can significantly impact your income. Don't feel defeated, though, because there are still options to recover what you're owed.

This guide will equip you with proven methods to collect unpaid rent even after a tenant leaves. We'll explore critical steps like verifying the move-out date, reviewing the lease for violations, and sending formal payment notices.

If friendly reminders are unsuccessful, we'll discuss how to utilize legal methods like small claims court or collection agencies.

By the end, you'll have an actionable toolbox of strategies to address this common landlord predicament. Follow the proper procedures to increase your odds of collecting overdue rent and avoiding unnecessary losses. Let's get started!

How do you collect rent payments not paid by the tenant?

When a tenant leaves the property without fulfilling their financial obligations, you might need some pointers on collecting the outstanding amount. Following the correct procedures can increase your chances of recovering the unpaid rent. Here are some of our recommended strategies:

Verify tenant departure

The first step is verifying if the tenant has indeed moved out of the property. Visit the rental unit to confirm if the tenant has indeed moved out.

Start by evaluating the property's condition and looking for signs of occupancy. If the tenant's personal belongings are gone, and the property is empty, these indicate that the tenant has permanently left the property.

There are instances where a tenant vacates their unit but leaves behind personal belongings, which makes it unclear if they have moved out. If this is the case, try contacting them directly to get their verbal confirmation. If the tenant confirms that they have moved out, you can facilitate arrangements for them to retrieve their personal property.

If you cannot reach the tenant, follow your state's laws for handling abandoned property.

Review the lease agreement

If you're still waiting to reach the tenant to finalize the remaining amount owed, the next step to collecting unpaid rent is to review the lease agreement. Since this is a legal contract that indicates the responsibilities of both parties involved, here are the things to verify:

  • Payment terms:  Check the lease agreement to see if it clearly states the due date, frequency, and method of rent payment. You'll need these details for pursuing unpaid rent.
  • Late fees and penalties: Verify if the rental agreement includes details on late fees or penalties for overdue rent. Use these provisions to determine additional amounts you can charge for unpaid rent.
  • Default and remedies: Review the rental agreement's default and remedies section, which typically covers what actions you can take in case of non-payment. It may have guided steps to recover unpaid rent, such as sending notices or initiating legal proceedings.
  • Termination and move-out: Assess termination and move-out procedures clauses. These clauses may have instructions on rent obligations upon termination and the tenant's responsibility to settle any outstanding balances.

Send proper notice

Send a formal demand letter to the tenant for the outstanding unpaid rent to their last known address. For documentation purposes, send this letter via certified mail. Include the total amount owed, a deadline for payment, acceptable payment methods, and details about potential legal consequences for non-compliance.

Giving tenants proper notice gives them the opportunity to address the issue before pursuing further action. If legal action is required down the line, proof that you gave the tenant chances to remedy the situation before escalating the issue can help your case. Follow local laws for delivering notifications, including the timeline and method.

Keep copies of all correspondence and record dates and responses from the tenant. If the initial demand letter doesn't result in payment, follow up to remind the tenant of the seriousness of the situation.

Explore legal options

If a tenant continues to have unpaid rent despite multiple attempts to resolve the issue, taking them to small claims court can be a viable option. Small claims court provides a platform to present evidence and seek a judgment for unpaid rent, allowing landlords to recover the rent owed.

The exact steps to file in small claims court vary depending on the jurisdiction, but here is a general outline of the process:

  1. Research and gather documentation: Familiarize yourself with local small claims court procedures and requirements. Collect all relevant documentation related to the unpaid rent, such as lease agreements, rent payment records, and communication with the tenant.
  2. Fill out the necessary forms: Obtain the required forms from your local small claims court or their website. Fill out the necessary information accurately, providing details about the rent owed, the reason for the claim, and any supporting evidence.
  3. File the claim: Submit the completed forms and the filing fee to the small claims court. Ensure you follow the court's submission methods, deadlines, and payment guidelines.
  4. Serve the tenant: Serve the tenant with a copy of the filed claim and a court date notice. Depending on your jurisdiction, this may involve hiring a process server or using certified mail.
  5. Prepare your case: Organize your evidence, including documents, receipts, and correspondence with the tenant.
  6. Attend the court hearing: Present your case before the judge on the scheduled court date. State the facts, provide evidence, and explain why you believe you are entitled to the unpaid rent. In cases where the tenant moved away and doesn't show up to court, the landlord will automatically win.
  7. Follow up: If the judge rules in your favor and issues a judgment, take appropriate steps to collect the rent owed. The judge's decision may involve wage garnishment, bank account levy, or other legal means available in your jurisdiction.

Consider consulting with a lawyer who specializes in landlord-tenant law. A lawyer can provide guidance on your legal rights and obligations, help navigate the complex legal process, and assist in pursuing the owed rent through the appropriate legal channels.

Use the security deposit

Check the lease agreement terms, rent collection policy, and local laws to determine whether you can keep the tenant's security deposit and apply it as payment for the unpaid rent.

In many jurisdictions, landlords can use a tenant's security deposit to recoup unpaid rent or damages to the rental property. Security deposits can serve as a preventive measure for landlords to protect themselves in case of non-payment. Including this provision in the lease agreement and collecting a security deposit upfront can provide a financial safeguard to mitigate potential losses caused by unpaid rent.

Seek guidance from the local housing authority, as they can provide insights on any legal restrictions around keeping the tenant's security deposit to cover unpaid rent.

Debt collections

If all other attempts to collect unpaid rent have been unsuccessful, landlords may consider seeking the assistance of a reputable debt collection agency. Choose an agency and provide them details on the debt, including the tenant's contact information, rental agreement, and any supporting documentation.

Once the agency receives this information, it will initiate the debt collection process by sending a formal demand letter to the debtor. This letter will outline the outstanding balance, payment due date, and consequences of non-payment.

The agency may follow up with phone calls to discuss the debt and negotiate a resolution with the debtor.

If the debtor fails to respond or make satisfactory arrangements, the debt collection agency may escalate the matter further. This can involve legal action, such as filing a lawsuit or obtaining a judgment against the debtor. In addition, the agency has the ability to report the debt to credit bureaus, potentially impacting the debtor's credit score.

The fees for using a debt collection service can vary depending on factors such as the amount of the debt, the complexity of the case, and the specific services required. Typically, debt collection agencies charge fees based on a percentage of the total amount collected.

Avoid unpaid rent in the future

Recovering unpaid rent is a headache that you won't want to have to handle more than once. To avoid the financial loss of unpaid rent in the future, landlords should implement proactive strategies and establish guidelines that prioritize timely rent payments from tenants. Some areas to consider include:

Thorough tenant screening

Implement a thorough tenant screening process to ensure you only choose a reliable and financially responsible tenant.

A comprehensive screening process includes:

  • Background checks
  • Evaluation of credit history
  • Verification of employment records
  • Contacting previous landlords for reliable references

Clear and comprehensive lease agreements

Draft an easy-to-understand lease agreement that clearly outlines the terms and conditions of the tenancy, including rent amount, due date, late payment penalties, and consequences for non-payment.

Consistent communication

Maintain open communication with your tenants. Encourage them to report any financial difficulties or issues affecting their ability to pay rent on time. Proactive communication can help in addressing problems before they occur.

Automated rent collection

If you haven't already, consider implementing an automated system to modernize the rent collection process and guarantee prompt payments. Automated rent payment systems include options like online payments or recurring bank transfers. By adopting such technology, landlords can streamline their operations and ensure a smoother and more efficient collection process.

Enforcement of late payment penalties

Include details for late payment penalties or interest charges for overdue rent in the lease agreement. Apply these penalties consistently to discourage late payments.

Regular property inspections

Conduct regular property inspections to uncover any potential issues with the property early on, such as unauthorized occupants or lease violations that could lead to non-payment.

Property management companies

Hiring a property management company can aid in timely rent collection. These professionals are skilled in handling tenant-related tasks. They advertise vacancies, screen potential tenants, collect rent, manage lease agreements, handle legal procedures, and take further legal action if necessary.

Outsourcing property management can help landlords avoid losing rent and make the landlord's life a whole lot easier.

An emergency fund

Set aside a part of the rental income as an emergency fund for unexpected expenses or vacancies that may arise, reducing the impact of unpaid rent.

Legal knowledge

Stay informed and up-to-date about local landlord-tenant laws and regulations. Understanding your obligations and rights can help you grasp the legal processes, allowing you to act quickly and confidently if non-payment issues arise.

Prevention is important, but it's also necessary to handle non-payment situations promptly and follow the law. Consult with legal professionals for specific guidance in your jurisdiction.

Acting with confidence when collecting rent not paid by a tenant

While collecting unpaid rent from a former tenant can be tricky, it is entirely possible with the right approach. Equip yourself with knowledge about local regulations and required procedures in your state to avoid missteps.

Consult a local real estate attorney to understand your options and ensure you follow the law. Send demand letters, file court claims promptly, and execute judgments carefully. Document everything and make reasonable repayment arrangements if possible.

With professional guidance and diligent efforts, you will have better chances of recovering owed rent.

Collecting unpaid rent FAQs

What if the tenant refuses to pay rent or doesn't respond to demands for payment?

If the rent remains unpaid despite your efforts to retrieve it, take legal action, especially if the tenant refuses or doesn't respond to the notice. This action can include filing a claim in small claims court.

Keep records of all communication and seek guidance from legal experts to understand the laws and procedures in your area. 

How long does a landlord have to collect unpaid rental payments?

The timeframe for landlords to seek unpaid rent may differ based on the state or jurisdiction. Consult local laws, legal experts, or the housing authority in your area for precise, informed details on your location.

Can a landlord sue for unpaid rent even without a lease?

Yes, landlords can sue for unpaid rent, even without a lease.

Although having a lease or rental agreement helps to establish clear payment terms, landlords can still take legal action to recover unpaid rent based on verbal agreements or other evidence of the tenancy.

Consulting local laws and seeking legal advice is recommended to understand the rights and options available in a particular area.

Can a tenant pay rent after receiving an eviction notice?

Sometimes, it is possible to pay rent after receiving an eviction notice. It depends on the specific situation and local laws.

While some landlords may accept rent payments and stop the eviction process, others may proceed with the eviction, regardless of payment.

The tenant and landlord will need to communicate directly or seek legal advice to understand options and obligations.

Important note: This post is for informational and educational purposes only. This post should not be taken as legal advice or used as a substitute for such. You should always speak to your own legal counsel before taking action.

Nichole Stohler

Nichole co-founded Gateway Private Equity Group, with a history of investments in single-family and multi-family properties, and now a specialization in hotel real estate investments. She is also the creator of NicsGuide.com, a blog dedicated to real estate investing.

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