Some disputes between landlords and tenants are inevitable. However, when a dispute gets beyond the point where both parties are able to reach an agreement on their own, it may be time to think about going to landlord-tenant court. This is a guide to landlord-tenant court specifically geared toward landlords. Read it over to get a better idea of how this court works and what your obligations are in the process.
What is landlord-tenant court?
Sometimes landlords and tenants will have disputes they can't resolve on their own. In that case, the landlord often needs to take the tenant to housing court to bring the dispute to a resolution. It's important to note that each state has its own individual laws and processes that govern these disputes, but most often they are heard by the local district court.
While landlords and tenants may find themselves facing court proceedings for a myriad of reasons, most often, the end result is that the landlord wants to pursue eviction action while the tenant would like to secure an eviction moratorium. However, the reasons behind the landlord starting eviction proceedings might be any of the following:
- The tenant owes the landlord several rental payments.
- The tenant consistently pays rent late or only pays a portion of the rent due.
- The tenant has caused damage to the property.
- The tenant has violated specific terms of the rental agreement.
- The tenant has caused extreme disruption for the other tenants in the building.
Notably, while landlord-tenant court is where you will go to receive a final determination on eviction proceedings, it is not where you will turn if your main goal is to collect money for back rent due or to hash out who is entitled to a security deposit. For that, you should go to small claims court. Disputes involving an exchange of funds are most often considered small claims.
What are the steps involved in going to court?
Keep in mind that taking a tenant to court to pursue a determination on an eviction case is often a long and costly process. Again, each state will have its own set of procedures you'll need to follow to lawfully evict a tenant, so you should take the time to familiarize yourself with your state's requirements. However, the steps below will give you some idea of what to expect.
Sending a notice
If you've tried negotiating with your tenant to no avail, the first step toward taking eviction action is to send them a written notice of cure or quit. While your notice should be specific to the behavior that's causing you to consider eviction, a cure or quit notice essentially gives the tenant a set period of time to either fix the problem or change their behavior. Your state can provide guidelines on the specific time frame.
If, after that predetermined period of time, your tenant has not reimbursed you for any unpaid rent or made a major change in their behavior, you're within your rights to move forward with filing a complaint with the court. However, depending on your state, you may also be required to send the tenant a notice that you are terminating their tenancy first.
Filing a complaint
After you've sent your notice and waited out the clock, the next step is to file a complaint with the court. Usually, you'll be required to go to the district court in person to file the paperwork. Usually, the paperwork involves collecting some basic information about you and your tenant, such as your names and addresses, as well as the reason you've started the eviction process. You'll also likely have to pay a small filing fee.
Getting a court date
A few days after the paperwork has been processed, both you and the tenant will receive an official notice of complaint in the mail. The notice will contain important information about your hearing date, including the address where the hearing will be held, the date and time that it's scheduled to occur, and the specific room in the courthouse where the judge will hear your case.
Before the hearing, you'll want to take the time to collect any evidence that may support your case. This could include the lease agreement, any notices of unpaid rent, or photographs of any damage done to the rental property by the tenant.
The day of your eviction hearing
On the day of your hearing, it's crucial to show up at the location listed in your notice of complaint and to be on time. If you don't show up, the case against your tenant may ultimately be dismissed.
When you arrive, a few different things could occur:
- If neither you nor the tenant is being represented by a lawyer, court mediators may help you try to reach an agreement.
- If you both have lawyers, they may work together to reach a settlement.
- If an agreement cannot be reached, you'll both go in front of the judge and present your evidence, and then he or she will make a ruling on the eviction hearing.
The judge's ruling
If you win the case, the tenant will likely be given a court order for a date by which they have to move out of the rental property. If they don't move out by that date, you are within your rights to obtain a warrant of removal from local law enforcement. The warrant gives law enforcement the right to lock the tenant out of the unit or forcibly remove them from the property.
If you lose, the case will be dismissed and you will have to carry on as normal until the end of the tenant's lease.
How can you avoid going to landlord-tenant court?
As you might imagine from the steps described above, following through on the eviction process can be very costly and time-consuming. With that in mind, it's likely in your best interest to try and explore all other avenues before eviction. We've laid some options out for you below.
Make a phone call
Sometimes all it takes to resolve a dispute between a tenant and a landlord is a polite phone call, especially if the issue is minor or it's a first offense. Here you should remain courteous, but be sure to explain to the tenant what issue is at hand. You should also clearly state how you would like the issue to be rectified and give the tenant time to explain their side of the story. In some cases, the tenant might not even be aware that there has been a problem.
Send a written request
If the tenant doesn't make an effort to rectify the problem after your phone call, it's time to put your request in writing. Sending a notice that includes all the relevant information for your complaint will provide proof that you attempted to resolve the issue before heading to court. Be sure to keep copies of any written correspondence for your records.
Lastly, offer to try mediation. Most states now offer some type of mediation services, which are likely to cost much less than taking the tenant to court. Often mediation agreements are filed with the court, which makes them legally binding and as effective as a court hearing.
The bottom line
The eviction process should always be used as a last resort. However, when you need it, it's important to understand the ins and outs of bringing a case to landlord-tenant court. While you should still read up on your state's specific laws and requirements, his guide can give you a general overview of what to expect.