7 STEPS FOR REMOVING A PROBLEM TENANT
Letting out real estate can be a great business move, allowing you to provide a home to a tenant while generating income. Sometimes, however, a tenant can make themselves more trouble than they're worth. Here's a quick guide to legally evicting a problem tenant.
Review the Lease!In Virginia courts tend to give a lot of deference to the freedom of individuals to bind themselves in contract. The reasonable terms of a lease lawfully entered into will most often be enforceable. As a landlord, it's your responsibility to ensure your expectations are clearly articulated, and the tenant agrees to his responsibilities. To evict a tenant, you must be able to prove a material breach in the terms of the lease.
Know what law governs your agreement.Virginia is a Commonwealth that traditionally affords substantial protections to property owners. However, the Virginia Residential Landlord Tenant Act (VRLTA) is now the default law governing leases. For all leases signed after July 1, 2017, the lease must positively state that it is an "opt-out" of the more tenant-friendly VRLTA. Even to be eligible to opt out, the property must be a single family home or condo (not a multi-family dwelling) and the Landlord may not be renting out more than two (2) such homes.
Provide Notice (other than non-payment of rent)Before a court will entertain eviction, notice of breach must be provided with reasonable opportunity to cure. You must provide written notice (usually posting the notice on the door of the residence is sufficient) specifying the nature of the breach and what must be done to cure the breach. If the breach cannot be cured, notify that you are terminating the lease and the tenant has 30 days to vacate the premises. Specify what section of the lease, or the Virginia Code has been violated.
For example, "On May 26, and June 11, the City of Virginia Beach cited you as violating city code for having trash on the lawn, and improper disposal of waste. This represents a violation of Section 14 of the Lease specifying the Tenants' responsibility to maintain the premises in reasonable cleanliness and Section 22 obligating the tenant to comply with all city ordinances. Further, this is a violation of * 55-225.4 of the Virginia Code requiring tenants to remove all garbage and rubbish in a clean and safe manner. This constitutes a material breach of the lease, and therefore the lease is hereby terminated.
You have until July 15 to vacate the premises of your person and possession.
Provide Notice - Rent is overdueYou don't have to put up with a tenant that does not pay for the privilege of occupying your property. But you have to document, and provide notice. Often the lease will provide a "grace period." Make sure that you provide notice immediately when the rent is overdue. Frequently, the landlord initially turns a blind eye, or responds understandingly the first month or two that rent is paid late, or the tenant makes partial payment. After all, nearly everyone has had an unexpected emergency that ties up funds.
But, for many landlords, that rent income is part of your family budget, and your family can't afford to support a non-paying tenant. If you would like to be understanding, go ahead - but please document! A prompt notice can still be polite. If the first late or partial payment is a temporary situation, than the tenant will understand, but if it is the first sign of problems to come, you will do well to protect your family's assets by providing notice.
Courts tend to act quickly when it comes to evicting non-paying tenants. If a landlord can show he has documented late payments and provided notice requiring complete on time payment in order to forestall eviction and the tenant does not comply, courts will often grant judgment for possession at the first hearing.
Be Careful and Protect Yourself!Courts do not look favorably on bullies. Some obvious things to avoid include threats, harassment, and badgering the tenant at work. However, the onus for clear communication is on you, and at the point the breach comes to your attention. In some cases, accepting rent, with knowledge of material breach, can be construed as a waiver of your rights to enforce the lease.
No one wants to decline rent. If you know your tenant is in violation of the lease, and you still want your money, then provide the tenant with a written notice (email is usually fine) notifying them you are accepting the rent "with reservation." Provide a "Notice of Non-Compliance" specifying, as above, the nature of the breach connected to a specific provision in the lease or the code governing the conduct.
If you have to inspect the property, make sure to do so at a "reasonable time." Bring somebody along with you. Don't put yourself in a position where the tenant can accuse you of causing damage to the property, or to their personal property, or threatening them. Having a disinterested witness present, and taking photographs (with discretion and respecting privacy) is a good way to protect yourself against baseless accusations and to document your fulfillment of your landlord responsibilities. Also, give your tenant a heads up, at least 24 hours in advance, that you're coming to inspect the property.
File early and move on!The threat of going to court is usually enough to convince a problem tenant to move on from the property. Follow the steps above, but do so quickly. When a tenant becomes a problem, let them know politely - but forcefully and immediately. Give them a chance to fix the problem, and be specific. Tell them exactly what they have to do to keep you happy (and comply with the lease) and when they must do it. If they don't fix it, or the problem repeats - notify they are in breach and provide them thirty days to be out. If you have any inkling they won't comply, hire an attorney and file for Unlawful Detainer in the General District Court where the property is located. It will likely take several weeks to get on the docket. Should the tenant leave on their own, you can withdraw the motion with no harm (beyond a filing fee) to you. If the tenant does not comply, you will have a date where you can go to the judge and ask for an Order of Possession in which the Court recognizes the lease as terminated and grants you possession of the property. If the tenant still does not go, this is the order you provide to the Sheriff to proceed to eviction.
Start advertising the property for rent. You have a right to show the property, and you will want to get started early in order to avoid months of lost rent which you may or may not be able to recover from the tenant.
Get an Attorney!Evicting a tenant can feel like a full time job. Even with knowledge of the law, the patience required to do it right can be demanding. If you have a problem tenant that does not respond to your reasonable appeals to keep to their end of the agreement consider contacting a knowledgeable Real Estate attorney to assist you in the process. Your home is your biggest asset. You have a responsibility to protect it.