Breaking a lease

14 Replies

I have a tenant that has been trouble since the day she moved in. Her first rent check bounced. The second month she was days late with some cockamamie story about her phone falling in water on some retreat. The third month she was actually on time and the 4 month (this month) she didn't pay rent and informed me she is moving out and I can use her deposit as July's rent. To add to the fun she also never put the utilities in her name and since I had them on auto pay when I lived there I was still paying the electric bill. Yes my bad for not paying closer attention but when I told her I needed a refund she tried to say she did put them in her name. Right, that's why they are charging me then? She did eventually pay me for these charges. And last but not least she was wondering why the furnace fan was running so much. She was out of oil and when I asked her if she wanted it to be filled she said yes and then refused to pay the $550 bill. She said it was ridiculous and she should have been told about this upfront! I kindly sent her the paragraph from the lease she signed stating she was responsible for all utilities and heat did happen to be a utility. I also explained this was likely a one time cost because that oil would last her well into next year. My bad again...I should have just let her figure it all out and she could get her own oil account and not use the condo account. Lesson learned there but to date this woman owes me $3,550. I also have a property management company I'll be using going forward. So the dilemma is do I let her out of the lease and say good ridens or do I take her to court because she's breaking a 1 year lease. Even if it was a tenant at will lease she gave me less than 30 days notice. I don't think I'll have a problem renting the place again quickly but I don't want to let her get away with this crap she's pulling. My lawyer said these usually end in her having to pay 3-4 months rent which is worth it. But how much am I going to pay in lawyer fees to get that? And I may win and she has to pay me but what really forces her to pay? I'm guessing she's thinking that Massachusetts is a tenant state and she'll walk away clean but she doesn't have kids and hasn't fallen on hard times, she's just a crappy person. If she was a good tenant I'd let her out and wish her the best and proceed to finding a new tenant ASAP. However I just can't stomach letting her off the hook. What does everyone think? Am I letting emotion get in the way of making a good business decision? Should I cut my losses now and just let her go so I can find good tenants? Or am I not crazy and I should fight this? A year lease is a legally binding document and you can't just decide you don't want to honor it. Oh and you can't decide you won't pay for a utility because you don't want to and that a deposit can apparently be substituted for rent when it's convenient for the tenant.

Hi Erica,

I am sorry to hear about the bad experiences that you had with this tenant. I know how frustrating this can be. we went through similar experience with a few of our tenants. I would trace back to your screening process. did you screen this tenant ? if yes, was there anything fishy in the records that you choose to ignore ?

My opinion is , i would forget about the incident, take the loss and move on. The more negative you get involve with lawyers etc, the more negative things happens. Think of it as a positive learning experience, get new tenants and move on.

James and Shanti.

@Erica Nagle do you have a breakdown of the $3,550 that is owed. You should choose your battles sometimes but I disagree about forgetting about it. I, personally, would go after the tenant for everything but I've been doing this a long time and I understand landlord/tenant law in MA. You need to be sure you understand the laws and what your options are. 

You should start with a 14 day notice for non-payment of rent. You don't need an attorney for this. You can find the form online or even contact a constable in your area who may have copies available. Have the constable serve the notice. At this point separate the non-payment from breaking the lease. They haven't actually moved out yet so the lease hasn't been broken. 

See how they react to the 14 day notice. Their reaction will determine how you proceed. Ultimately you want a judgement against them for any money that they owe you. You may  never collect the money but it will go on their credit if you follow through with the process. Don't rush, yet, to hire an attorney. Use BP to ask questions get advice along the way. And don't let them use their security deposit for the last month's rent. Never do that. Also, did you properly collect the security deposit? Did you have a statement of conditions signed and give them the account number and bank name where the deposit is being held? If you have followed all of the requirements for collecting a security deposit then no worries but look into it. If you haven't, I would suggest refunding the security deposit before you go to court. They will use it against you and you could end up owing them money (three X the amount of the security deposit).

Do a search online at masscourts.org for the names of the tenants. You will have to navigate through to search housing court and you might have to check more than one area to see if they have been evicted before (unless you did this prior to them moving in). If they have been evicted in the past they may know the system and they are taking advantage of you (professional tenants). 

Do a search online about the eviction process in MA and learn everything you can about evictions and landlord/tenant law in Massachusetts. 

Good luck Erica. Keep us updated. Also, PM me if you have any questions or if I can help in any way. I used an attorney for my first eviction and have done them all myself since. 

you now what? you could go either way. thats a significant amount of money she owes you and you shouldn't let her go on it. with that kind of track record, i don't see a judge not holding her responsible for what she owes you and giving you a judgement to collect. therein lies the problem. collecting. these people usually never pay that judgement. if she has a regular job, sure, you could garnish her wages, but then if she files bankruptcy, you are out anyway. if you do get to collect from her pay, that can take a while and then she may move on to a different job and you have to look for her again. lots of troubles collecting. then again, you could walk away and just let it be a lesson to you. sure, and expensive lesson, but then again education isn't usually cheap anyway. less negativity in your life breeds more positive in your life. its a tough call, personally, i could go either way. i had a similar deal a year ago. tenant left owing me $3000. he has a job, but i would imagine half of the world is standing in line waiting for their money from him too, so i just let it go. i have a tenant in that house now that has never been more than 2 days late in the year that she has been there and i am getting $175 more per month from her than i was from him anyway. good luck to you

Thanks all for your input! 

@Rob Beland

The amount owed is $3,000 for rent and $550 for the oil that she refused to pay for and now that she's moving out, will never use. I actually used a real estate agent to find this tenant. The tenant screening and all of that was to be done by them. As far as the deposit it was put into a 'landlord' account. I recall filling out the condition of the condo form but I don't recall getting the signed copy from her. I'll look at my records. 

As far as evicting, she's going to move out at the end of the month so I don't think I'll have to evict her. How do I find a constable? This sounds like a good way to go. 

Thanks so much for the money saving advice! 

It has been my experience that even if I get a judgement against a tenant, they don't pay. If she ais willing to move without the cost of an eviction, let her go. Use want you can of her security deposit. On you next tenant, have them pay the oil bill, as they will be getting the benefit of the oil. I have some clients that even include an annual "furnace fee" in their lease to cover the filling of the tank.

@Steve Combs

Good idea on the next tenant paying for oil!

First think you will never get her to really pay you all she owes you. Have her sign an acknowledgement of the rent she owes you and that she offers her deposit to be applied to the unpaid rent. 

As far as the oil bill. Charge your next tenant as that is not part of your end of things. You can distribute the cost over months so they do not take one big hit for the $550.00. I think it will be better if you include the oil and service in the rent and just adjust your rental amount to reflect that cost. 

If she is leaving on her own let her go and avoid the eviction costs. Just learn from this experience. If this happens again or to avoid this situation again start your eviction process as soon as they are late even the first time. If this is a building where you have other tenants they will see you mean business when it comes to everyone paying their rent on time. 

You dragged your feet on taking action and look where it has gotten you. You procrastinated hoping your tenant would make good on paying you. Have clear cut policies when you sign a lease and stick to your policies no matter what. 

I would agree with the others - take your lessons and do not do this the mistakes again. Sometimes just that is worth the trouble. 

@Erica Nagle going forward you should be sure that utilities are in the name of the tenant. If they want electricity they will set up an account. If they want heat they will buy oil. Screen your tenants. Avoid problems. Please don't take the advice that so many have offered that once you get a judgement the tenant will never pay. Paying is only half of the battle. The other half is the fact that you will have the judgement against them and it goes on their credit. You can sue the tenant in small claims court as well. It's a matter of paperwork. It's a day in court. It's on their credit report. If they want a car loan the bank is going to ask about the debt to Erica Juhl. If they want a car loan they have to pay you first. Don't give in to the system. And for the record, none of the above comments are from investors/landlords in MA so take that into consideration. Good luck. 

Update! 

I wanted to provide an update on this situation because it's a great outcome and I hope others (at least in Massachusetts) will take this route. I decided not to just let the tenant off the hook. I followed the advise from @Rob Beland and filed a 14 day quit and had a constable serve the papers to her. 

This was a super easy process. I googled Constable, clicked on the first one I found and followed the process. I was able to download the simple form, fill it out and email it back and it was served later that same day! It cost me a whole $40. It's best to have a Constable deliver the form because it's the only way to prove with 100% certainty to a judge when the paper was delivered. Even if they aren't there, the period still starts when it's delivered. 

Additionally we went to the condo to survey any damage (tenant was at work) to see where we stand on damages. Luckily the place was in great condition but even if it wasn't I felt confident that I at least knew how to ruin this chic's credit. I also listed the property for rent again with a real estate company and it's already rented for August 1st for $200 more a month that she was paying! 

We weren't out of the woods yet. What if she did all sorts of damage when she moved out? How to protect against that? Well the 14 day quit period luckily ended on the 27th. This gave me leverage to ensure she didn't do damages on the way out. I asked her when she planned to move and she said the 31st. Way too risky for me with new tenants moving in the next day. 

So I informed her that she had 3 options. 

1) She could wait until the 31st to move out, not pay July rent (she never paid) and I would start the eviction process on the 27th. It would show that she was evicted when other landlords looked up her history and additionally I would be suing her for the July rent which would go on her credit report. 

2) She could pay July rent, move out the 31st and I'll assess damages and refund her deposit minus damages. This was the same/normal process for a tenant moving out. 

3) She could move out on the 27th and I'll keep her deposit as July rent and will sue her for any additional damages. 

She chose option 3. Even if she doesn't follow through I have legal recourse. If all works out I'll lose no money and actually get more rent going forward. 

I encourage everyone to find out what the legal options are and follow the process. I understand I got lucky because she didn't cause damage and she doesn't have any kids or excuse as to why she has to stay but it's worth trying no matter what the situation!

@Rob Beland...Thank you so much for your help and advice in this whole situation! You've saved me lots of stress and probably lost $$ if I hadn't had any leverage over her!

@Erica Juhl Good work.

I have never lived in an area that does heating oil so I may have a different outlook but.... I would think it would make more sense to charge an averaged oil/utility charge over the course of a lease, based on average monthly costs. If I am a tenant looking to move in and almost immediately I am supposed to pay to fill the oil tank, I am going to be seriously ticked off. Also, if I am a tenant nearing the end of my lease, I going to do my best to skimp on oil usage and leave the tank as close to bone dry as possible. And honestly that is not being a jerk tenant, that is just making a legal, economic/business decision. But the standard way of doing things there may be different so just my two cents worth.

Originally posted by @Rob Beland :

@Erica Nagle do you have a breakdown of the $3,550 that is owed. You should choose your battles sometimes but I disagree about forgetting about it. I, personally, would go after the tenant for everything but I've been doing this a long time and I understand landlord/tenant law in MA. You need to be sure you understand the laws and what your options are. 

You should start with a 14 day notice for non-payment of rent. You don't need an attorney for this. You can find the form online or even contact a constable in your area who may have copies available. Have the constable serve the notice. At this point separate the non-payment from breaking the lease. They haven't actually moved out yet so the lease hasn't been broken. 

See how they react to the 14 day notice. Their reaction will determine how you proceed. Ultimately you want a judgement against them for any money that they owe you. You may  never collect the money but it will go on their credit if you follow through with the process. Don't rush, yet, to hire an attorney. Use BP to ask questions get advice along the way. And don't let them use their security deposit for the last month's rent. Never do that. Also, did you properly collect the security deposit? Did you have a statement of conditions signed and give them the account number and bank name where the deposit is being held? If you have followed all of the requirements for collecting a security deposit then no worries but look into it. If you haven't, I would suggest refunding the security deposit before you go to court. They will use it against you and you could end up owing them money (three X the amount of the security deposit).

Do a search online at masscourts.org for the names of the tenants. You will have to navigate through to search housing court and you might have to check more than one area to see if they have been evicted before (unless you did this prior to them moving in). If they have been evicted in the past they may know the system and they are taking advantage of you (professional tenants). 

Do a search online about the eviction process in MA and learn everything you can about evictions and landlord/tenant law in Massachusetts. 

Good luck Erica. Keep us updated. Also, PM me if you have any questions or if I can help in any way. I used an attorney for my first eviction and have done them all myself since. 

That's pretty good advice.

Separate the issues, keep the deposit separate from the rent, etc. DOCUMENT EVERYTHING.

Good luck

Good work @Erica Nagle ! proud of you for not giving up and not letting her get away with this nonsense! I would of done the same exact thing. I enjoyed reading this forum it was very helpful as I too will be doing rentals in Mass.

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