Always a model tenant, Jan was a quiet neighbor and rarely complained. She was sometimes a few days late with the rent, but the long-time owner was easy-going, not even charging a late fee. That changed when the building sold, and the new owner was less forgiving. A month after the sale, Jan came home to find a document taped to her front door. The document, “Three Day Notice to Pay Rent or Quit,” seemed a bit far-fetched. Three days? She assumed it was a casual request and mailed a check a few days later.

When her rent check arrived past the three-day limit, the new owner filed an eviction action–and won. By not paying within the three-day limit, the judge ruled that the new owner had “just cause” for eviction. In more than 22 states in the U.S., tenants have little or no grace period at all for late rent. Jan’s habit of being several days late cost her the roof over her head, and it left a black mark on her credit report.

Paying the rent on time is a bread-and-butter, basic fact of tenant life. But when is it really due? What happens when it’s paid late?

In most states, due dates boil down to what is stated in the rental agreement, with the legal minimum set by state law. The amount of rent and when it should be paid is usually a front-page lease item. If you violate the written agreement, you could be in hot water. Paying after the grace period is a recipe for trouble, usually called a “Notice to Pay Rent or Quit.” Once served, the rent must be paid within the days required or formal eviction may be the next course of action. Always get immediate legal advice if served a legal document, and read it carefully.

With late rent, give a date you expect to fulfill your obligation, especially with new property ownership. Every owner has a different threshold of tolerance. Don’t step over it or you may get tossed out, since late rent is always a justifiable cause for eviction. “Just cause” is defined as “breaching a material factor in the lease.” While definitions may vary between cities, even with rent control regulations, non-payment of rent is universally a “just cause” for being evicted. The process begins with written legal notice to the tenant.

The number of days granted to the tenant to pay the rent is stated in the actual notice. The correct and valid amount should be listed. For many areas, notice must indicate an exact address for mailing or location and hours the rent can be brought over. The clock usually starts ticking the day after the notice is served, by posting the document on the unit’s front door, plus mailed.

Eviction based on non-payment of rent is the most common reason evictions are filed, so take any Notice to Pay Rent seriously. If you pay your rent with cash or money order, ask for a signed and dated receipt. Written receipts are always a good idea, especially when funds are involved.

Unconditional Quit Termination is a fancy name that can apply for late rent, repeat offenders and worse. In about 21 states, immediate termination of a tenancy is allowed for a variety of misdeeds, ranging from non-payment of rent to using the premises for gambling or allowing prostitution.

What if you’re a model tenant and you’re just going to be late with the rent? Don’t play hide and seek. Give the landlord a call and openly admit the rent will be delayed. Work out an arrangement in writing, signed by both landlord and tenant. Offering to write a check for a partial payment is more appetizing to most folks than nothing at all.

Late fees charged to tenants are legal–within limits. Most states allow a late fee to be charged, but only if the rental agreement contains the provision. The actual amount charged and effective date must be listed. In some states, late fees must be reasonably related to the actual cost the landlord or manager incurs as a result of the late payment. For example, charging a tenant a $100 late fee is not justified.

Keep in mind that rent should be a priority payment, since it provides a place to call home. Take any notice or form received seriously. Read the document fully, take immediate action to reply, and get legal advice for any questions.

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