If your tenant has moved out of your rental property without paying all the rent he owes, you're likely frustrated and wondering what your options are. To recover the money you are owed and possibly additional money for damages and legal fees, you have several options available to you, including small claims court or a collection agency.
As a landlord, if a tenant doesn't voluntarily pay rent when he vacates, you may have legal recourse to collect through the court system or by hiring a collection agency.
Your Rights as a Landlord
As a landlord, you have the right to receive all past-due rent money from a tenant who has vacated your property. Unless the tenant has a legitimate and legal reason to withhold rent, you are entitled to that money as stated by the lease or rental agreement you both signed. If the security deposit does not cover the amount the tenant owes, you have the right to take certain steps to collect on the rent owed to you.
Small Claims Court
You can sue a former tenant for breach of contract in small claims court. If you go this route, you may also collect money for damage to the property as well as money to cover your legal fees. Before you begin the process, you must weigh the amount of time and effort this will take against how much money your tenant owes. If after you take the tenant's security deposit he still owes you just one or two hundred dollars, you should consider whether small claims court is worth it. If the tenant owes a substantial amount of rent and left significant damage to your property, small claims court may be the right option.
Hiring a Collection Agency
In lieu of small claims court, you can hire a collection agency to recover the money your tenant owes you. In order to do this, you must gather all pertinent paperwork and evidence, including your lease or rental agreement. Also provide any receipts or work orders from repairs done to the property due to the tenant's damage, the tenant's most current contact information, and any proof that you've attempted to collect on your debt, such as certified letters you've sent to the tenant. Some collections agencies charge up-front while others take a percentage of what they recover.
Mitigate Loss by Screening Applicants
In order to prevent this kind of occurrence from happening in the future, diligently check every applicant you consider -- even to the point where it may seem like overkill. Thoroughly check an applicant's credit, rental and employment history. Perform a background criminal check, and follow up on every reference an applicant provides. Don't ignore any red flags that pop up while you're investigating, as this could lead to more trouble down the line.
Kate Savage is a writer and editor with more than eight years experience writing and editing professionally. She holds a master's degree in writing and editing as well as a bachelor's degree in English literature. Her writing has been featured on a number of websites, including eHow, GlobalPost, and SFGate.com. She lives in Portland, Ore.