Should I Work With a Late-Paying Tenant or Evict Them? [With Case Studies!]

by | BiggerPockets.com

Many tenants will request that you “work with them” when their rent is late.

Deciding to work with them is a bit of an art form, and there is a strategy for doing so that won’t leave you in the lurch if something goes wrong. Before we get there, let’s talk about the two most common reasons why rent is usually late.

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1. Priorities

There is a common pattern we see with late rent, and it’s caused by the fact that there are more than four weeks in a month. In other words, in April the tenant might get paid on the 3rd and 17th, then in May their paychecks would land on May 1st, 15th, and 29th. June would be the 12th and 26th, and July would be 10th and 24th. As you can see, for those who are paid every other week, paydays come MORE often than twice a month, and tenants sometimes have a hard time getting used to that. In the dates above, the tenant would likely use their May 1st paycheck for rent for May. Then they hopefully would use the paycheck from the 29th of May to pay their June rent.

But then that check on June 26th comes around, and the tenant realizes they still have a full week until rent is due, and they really need that money for something else, so they say, “I’ll just spend this paycheck and use the next one for rent.” But the next one doesn’t come until July 10th, so the tenant calls on the 5th of July and says, “My rent is going to be late because my paycheck doesn’t come until Friday,” as if some freak occurrence caused their paycheck to be delayed. Not placing their rent as a priority in their life is the number one reason why your tenant cannot make their rent payment on time.

BRRRR-strategy-deal

2. Illness or Job Loss

Despite what the media might have you believe, this is actually a pretty uncommon reason for not paying the rent. Usually, like we just discussed, tenants just haven’t made rent their priority; therefore, other things take precedence over a timely rent payment. However, when a tenant truly is struggling, it’s incredibly difficult for the landlord to know how to navigate. Our nature is to be kind to people and help them. After all, we are not machines; we are human beings and can sympathize with their situation.

Related: 10 Invaluable Lessons I Learned From My Very First Tenant Eviction

However, it can be tough to know what is true and what is just an excuse. Even if it is a true problem, how much is your responsibility? You are running a business, and you cannot be profitable if you cater to everyone’s problems. In fact, by being strict during difficult times, you might just help them keep their priorities straight and encourage them to work harder to get a new job or pay their other bills some other way.

Generally, the way we’ve looked at this situation is as follows: When someone is going through a tough time, the rent MUST be paid. The question is, will we pay it out of our own personal bank account, or will we hold them to their obligations? This mindset helps us separate our feelings from reality. If we would be willing to hand the struggling tenant $1,000 out of our own pocket, outside of the business, that is the only time when we would be willing to work with them on their rent. There are plenty of people in our own network of friends and acquaintances who are struggling financially, and if we had an extra $1,000 laying around, of course we would rather hand it over to them than to our tenant who may or may not be telling the truth. Unless you’re running a charity, the rent must be paid at all times.

Sometimes when the tenant realizes they have no other options, they will work it out, especially if you’ve made the rent a priority. Most of the time in a situation as extreme as illness or job loss, it does not, leaving the tenant with the choice of either moving willingly or being escorted out by the Sheriff post eviction. Next, we’d like to share two real-life case studies of tenants who have paid rent to us late recently.

Case Study #1

Luis was a single, hard-working guy who rented a small, 1-bedroom house from us. One month, he called to explain that his paycheck wasn’t coming for several days (the mystery of the “disappearing previous paycheck”) and needed a few more days to pay. We explained that he would still need to pay the late fee ($50) and the daily late fee ($10 per day), and we asked him for an exact date for when he would be paying the rent, which he stated would be on the 10th.

We told him, “That’s your choice to pay then, but you will receive a Pay or Vacate Notice from us, and that starts the clock ticking. On the 10th we have to file for eviction, so just make sure it’s paid by then, with the late fees.” The rent came in on the 10th, along with the late fees, and Luis was back on track.

Case Study #2

When they moved into our apartment complex, Lana and John were both employed and the parents of two children. A couple of years into their tenancy, John took off, leaving Lana a single mom, with a single income, and now four kids (we don’t know how she picked the extra two up!). Although she was a nurse and made good money, she always struggled with paying the rent on time, receiving Pay or Vacate Notices numerous times. In addition, her apartment became increasingly messy: garbage everywhere, broken blinds, Mickey Mouse sheets in the windows—everything that drives us crazy—only to be fixed “just enough” when we would call and make her.

Related: Cash for Keys: The Controversial Process That Could Save You Major Eviction Headaches

Two months ago, the rent didn’t show up (as usual), we received no phone call, and she refused to return our voicemails or text messages. We served the Pay or Vacate Notice (giving her three days to pay her rent before eviction proceedings would start), but again, we heard nothing. The 10th of the month came, and still, after repeated phone calls, text messages, and even personal visits to her apartment, we could not get in touch. Finally, on the 10th, we sent her a text message that said, “Eviction is being filed tomorrow, and it will be too late to stop. Can we talk?”

We finally received a call back within a few minutes (apparently she realized she could bury her head no longer!), where Lana stated that her paycheck was late and asked if we would work with her. When we asked about the exact date that she could pay, her response was, “I don’t know, maybe the 28th of this month.” We told her that would not work for us, and we would have to file for eviction, so she hung up on us. Eviction was filed on the 11th, and within three weeks she had moved out, leaving us with a disaster of a unit.

As you can see in the previous two examples, we are not opposed to working with someone as long as we are protecting ourselves against loss; we still served the Notice to Vacate, and we still charged the late fees in both cases. In case #1, we worked with the tenant, as he maintained communication with us and didn’t demand an excessive amount of time, paying within the required three days. We might have even waited a couple extra days before filing for eviction had it been necessary. Working with case #2, however, would have resulted in disaster.

landlord-lessons

We may have received the rent on the 28th, of course, but by then, the rent would be almost a month late. Would she have rent for the next month, due just four days later? Of course not. And the pattern would repeat indefinitely until she would flat-out stiff us, and we would be an entire month behind in rent before starting her eviction.

If you are going to “work with a tenant” and their late rent, only do so if you fully understand the situation. In other words, ask them why the rent is not paid and explain the “two-week paycheck problem” to them, as we discussed above. Make them walk backwards with you through their paychecks if needed so they understand that getting paid every other week actually means they should be ahead on their rent. Then, find out exactly what day their paycheck will come and hold them to that. Or if their paycheck is still a couple of weeks away, encourage them to borrow the money from a family member, friend, or cash-advance service. If you do decide to work with your tenant in regard to their late rent, never let them get more than two weeks behind, don’t make it a habit, and only “work with them” within the bounds of the law, protecting yourself.

Dealing with late rent is never fun, but you’ll likely find as we have: The more strict you are, the easier it becomes. Tenants pay on time most of the time, especially when they know you are serious about it. Most of the horror stories we hear from ex-landlords involved them being too soft on late rent. Adopt a policy of fair-but-firm when dealing with late rent, and the issue won’t leave you bankrupt. Yes, you might have to evict, but it will be better than losing your whole business.

[This article is an excerpt from Brandon Turner’s The Book on Managing Rental Properties.]

What has your experience been in working with tenants on late rent versus evicting them?

Let me know your thoughts and experiences below!

About Author

Brandon Turner

Brandon Turner (G+ | Twitter) spends a lot of time on BiggerPockets.com. Like... seriously... a lot. Oh, and he is also an active real estate investor, entrepreneur, traveler, third-person speaker, husband, and author of "The Book on Investing in Real Estate with No (and Low) Money Down", and "The Book on Rental Property Investing" which you should probably read if you want to do more deals.

10 Comments

  1. Erik Whiting

    Great article and good examples to show what you will / will not tolerate. Ah tenants! We love them and they drive us crazy! But handled properly, they make us wealthy.

    Generally I don’t work with tenants on late rent. But one strategy I’ve used with late paying tenants is a bi-weekly or bi-monthly payment plan for tenants who are not good at budgeting. I will split the payment in half and add on a 5-10% convenience charge in exchange for receiving their payments in chunks. This saves them late fees and if one right the rent comes due the day they have money in hand, rather than counting on them to be disciplined savers.

    Regarding bi-weekly: Keep in mind that you’ll need to clearly explain to the ones on this plan that there sometimes ends up being 3 payments per month instead of 2, and that the 3rd payment applies to part of the current month and part of the next month. Otherwise, you’ll get some folks who will say they’ve “already paid twice” this month and they’ll think you’re trying to cheat them. I have a spreadsheet template that all I have to do is key in the start date and the amount and it generates a report with the date the payment is due, the days it covers, etc for the entire year and have them sign it as an addendum to the lease.

    The downside is more time tracking and recording payments, but the upside is I sometimes get one full month’s extra rent or more over the course of a year if they elect to stay on the “Pay Day” plan. 10% * 12 months = 120% of one month’s rent. Another upside is fewer evictions because they can often come up with one small amount twice per month vs. one large amount. On a $1000/month rental, it’s one thing to ask Grandma or Uncle Joe for $500…and quite another for $1000!

    I do not work with tenants in any other fashion. I’m too busy working for myself, as the saying goes.

  2. Laura H.

    There was an instance where we had a long-term tenant (I’m talking years and years) who lost her job. She called us right when it happened and said, “I’m not sure when I’m going to get a new job and get everything paid up.” Prior to this she always paid on the 1st of the month. We told her we’d give her a few weeks as long as she kept us updated, which she did. Within a month she had a new job and was back on track like clockwork.

    A few years later we had a tenant who never even paid his security deposit (yeah, I know – he should never have gotten the keys, but this was before I took an interest in my husband’s rental property). After my husband mentioned that he was three (!!!) months behind on his rent, I said he needed to go. Like, yesterday. By the time the dust settled, the place was DESTROYED and we won a $5000 judgement, of which we’ll never see a dime.

    Point being – I believe in treating each situation accordingly. By working with our long-term tenant, we were able to keep her there for a number of years, significantly reducing our turnover costs. The other guy? Well let’s just say he was obviously a pro at this. After that experience, I got MUCH more involved in the property and made sure we were 1) vetting tenants appropriately and 2) not doing anybody any favors unless they’d been there for a few years.

  3. Tim Sabo

    Laura, I believe what you are referring to is what I call ‘Tenant Equity’ or what the tenant has ‘earned’ by keeping payments up-to-date or not. We try to follow the same rule of thumb: a tenant with good ‘equity’–one who has always paid on time and has communicated with us has earned the opportunity to stay. On the other hand, a brand new tenant or a deadbeat tenant has not built any ‘equity’ into the relationship and can not be given the same credit towards future payment. Great feedback.

  4. Michael Begley

    We inherited (upon purchase) a problem tenant who was chronically late. At one point after the first pay or vacate notice we worked out a payment plan to catch up. Two months later we were posting the next pay or vacate notice. The home was hoarder-full from his storage wars resale business without a storefront, and we feared the clearance and damage costs, so we offered cash for keys to vacate in 72 hours, leaving an empty, undamaged, clean home. He took the offer and he did it. We wrote off the debt, but feel we saved so much more, and it was re-tenanted in a week.

    • John Adams

      Michael, I inherited a tenant (upon purchase) who was a bit of a disaster. The place was a bit of a dump, and the neighbors were not happy. My plan was to upgrade the unit a bit, and rent it out at a higher rate — not possible with the current occupant.

      I was new to the landlording business, and I got all sorts of advice about evicting. The general thinking was that it was worth the several thousand dollars to go through the eviction process. I decided to simply offer the tenant $1,000 cash to move out. She gladly accepted the offer, and left fairly gracefully.

      Using the carrot ($1,000) instead of the stick (eviction) sure worked for me. Less hassle, cheaper, less damage, happier way. It also worked better for the tenant: instead of my cash going to the eviction process, she got the cash to help her with moving. As you might guess, she was VERY glad to get some cash.

      Michael, I like your “cash for keys” expression! And yes, I got the unit upgraded and re-leased in short order.

  5. Chad Hale

    Great article Brandon! I agree this is more of an art form than incredibly rigid rules of one shoe fits all. Managing a property is a lot about people skills.

    A related cousin is the tenant who has a habit of bouncing rent checks but always pays. A solution to that is to only accept cashiers checks or money orders. This is of course clearly spelled out in the lease. And now that the check has been returned for NSF the rent is also considered late. Don’t forget to add that fee. None of this is a surprise to the tenant as it is clearly explained at lease signing. Also give a 3-day notice every single time. Potentially some wasted paperwork/time? However, if/when eviction time comes there’s a lot of evidence.

  6. Marcus Lawson

    Thanks for the article Brandon as well as everyone sharing their experiences and strategies with late tenants. As I start my real estate journey, late payments is a concern of mine. Seeing that you guys moved swiftly and even re-occupied the place in no time is very encouraging

  7. Joshua Allen

    When my wife and I first started investing in properties, I was a push over and would let people get away with things just because I didn’t have the time, or the cajones to do anything. (definitely not the case now). My wife came in and rescued our investments and we have never looked back. One specific instance still brings tears of pride. My wife swooped in and spoke to a 3-4 month behind tenant. She got them to catch up over the next 2 months, including their entire tax return, and had them borrow money from relatives to square up. Once the money was in hand, she served them notice. Assuming the worst, we went back after they had left, and to our surprise the place was immaculate, including freshly dated baking soda containers in the fridge. Amazing how some people react. We don’t waste time any more. We have a friend that is an attorney that gets us letters at the drop of a hat. We’ve been very lucky evicting tenants. Its typically been just a typed letter with a threat to file and they have all been gone by our dated deadline.

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