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Landlord Lawsuit: Suing a Tenant for Damages or Unpaid Rent

By Jarrod Heil

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The best of a landlord-tenant relationship involves everyone acting cordially and rent being paid on time. Unfortunately, that’s not always the case — and some relationships lead to break-ups in the court of the law.

While suing a tenant is never the landlord’s initial priority, there are certain instances when the suit must be filed and you head to court.

It’s always best to have a face-to-face conversation with your tenants before you take them to court. They may realize the problem is serious and buck up for that unpaid rent or cost to repair damages.

But if the conversation doesn’t lead to an agreement, and the landlord is owed a great sum of money that is well worth their time, this is what a landlord needs to know about suing a tenant.

Can a Landlord Charge a Tenant for Legal Fees?

If you happen to have an unrelenting tenant that you must take to court, you can actually charge them for your legal fees. Legally speaking, landlords are responsible to pay their own court costs if they take a tenant to court.

However, many landlords include verbiage in leases that dictate the tenant must pay any legal fees incurred if a landlord is forced to sue a tenant.

Once the verbiage is included in the lease and the tenant signs it, it is legally binding that the tenant must pay those legal fees, which will usually get added on to the court verdict.

Can a Landlord Sue Tenant for Damages?

Yes, the most common landlord-tenant lawsuits are derived from damages to the rental home. But whether or not those damages must be paid for by the tenant is on a case-by-case basis.

If damage to the rental property doesn’t exceed the security deposit, there’s no reason to take a tenant to court. However, if the cost to repair those damages far exceeds the security deposit (and isn’t considered to be general wear and tear), the next step for both parties is small claims court.

For a landlord to win the lawsuit, they must have proof beyond a reasonable doubt that the damage occurred while the tenant was living in the home. Even if a friend of the tenant damaged the property, the landlord may still the tenant because they were responsible for the damages.

In the interim, or after the suit has taken place, the tenant may then turn around and sue the party that was at fault for the damages. But it makes more sense for a landlord to sue the tenant instead of the tenant’s friend because of the legally binding lease agreement.

Can a Landlord Sue Tenant for Unpaid Rent?

Yes, a landlord can certainly sue for unpaid rent if there was a lease agreement in place and the tenant has failed to pay rent on a single or multiple occasions.

It is better to evict the tenant before taking them to court, otherwise you may be in a legal battle with a tenant who keeps refusing to pay in spite of the lawsuit.

How Long Does a Landlord Have to Sue for Damages?

While a landlord has up to four to six years to sue a tenant in certain situations, it’s best to file the suit as quickly as possible. A good rule of thumb is to file the lawsuit within 30 days of the tenant moving out. This keeps the case fresh in everyone’s mind and has a better chance to make a credible case.

But what happens if there’s no lease agreement? Well, that’s when things get sticky.

Can a Landlord Sue for Damages Without a Lease?

Technically speaking, a landlord may sue a tenant for damages and unpaid rent if there is or never was a lease in place. The odds of winning that lawsuit are deeply diminished, though.

We always recommend putting a lease agreement in place — even if both parties are best friends of the owner of the home simply rents a room to the tenant.

Lease agreements are legally binding and allow all parties fair requirements to follow and a legal document to look back on if something bad were to happen.

Before a landlord sues a tenant when there was no lease agreement in place, they must also keep in mind that the tenant could countersue for a multitude of different things.

Think Before You Sue a Tenant

Suing a tenant for unpaid rent or damages may seem like the only way to recoup the money you lost on unpaid rent or repairs, but it isn’t always the best route. People are humanistic by nature, so a face-to-face conversation goes a long way.

Before you sue a tenant, have a conversation with them about repayments. If you must, put them on a repayment plan or cut the costs a little to negate the hassle of going to court.

If a tenant and landlord agree on any of the outcomes, be sure to get it in writing. If the agreement isn’t upheld, it’s a foolproof way for the landlord to win the lawsuit.

Keep in mind that lawsuits are expensive, time-consuming and draining. They take a lot out of you and eat up a ton of your time. So if you’re suing a tenant for a few hundred bucks, contemplate if your time and effort are worth that little before you decide on a lawsuit.

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