There is no exercise more frustrating for a landlord than collecting unpaid rent from a deadbeat tenant.   The legal process for doing so is often a costly and time consuming process regardless of the state you live in.  Even if you’re ultimately successful in obtaining a judgment against your tenant, it takes weeks if not months to have them physically evicted, and a money judgment is useless if the tenant has no money to pay it.  

In an effort to avoid court, many landlords engage in “self-help” tactics, such as changing the locks or turning off utilities in order to get their recalcitrant tenants to cough up.  However, those methods are often illegal and can get the landlord in a lot of trouble.  These facts beg the question: Is there any other alternative to legal process that won’t leave the landlord in hot water?  

The short answer to that question is yes, but only to a degree.  The best way to protect yourself is to first ensure that you have a written lease agreement in place.  Without a written agreement, there is no certainty on how much rent is due and when it must be paid, and if you can’t establish the existence and the specifics of an agreement, you are unlikely to collect a dime should the tenant decide not to pay. 

Any decently written lease contract will define all the specifics of a rental agreement, such including the amount of rent and when it must be paid, along with matters such as security deposits, utilities, upkeep, and the like.  But to avoid going to court and getting into trouble, be certain to include as many  self-help remedies into your lease as the law allows.  By incorporating those remedies into your lease contract, you can engage in them without getting into trouble.  

For example, you might also be able to obtain a security interest in certain items of the tenant’s personal property, such as a car or a television, in order For example, if the tenant has a 52 inch Sony flat screen TV, consider requiring the prospective tenant to grant you a lien on that item in the lease itself.  If you are able to do this, be certain to include specific instructions on how you can collect on that lien, and follow those instructions to the letter.  

State laws usually address how to engage in self-help remedies.  Many states permit land-lord liens on tenant property, lockouts, and entries, and eviction procedures.  Note that some states limit the types of property that a landlord can seize to collect unpaid back or delinquent rent, and impose other limitations as well (most states do not permit utility shut-off as a way to collect past due rent).  

To secure a well written lease, start here.  


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