Collecting Back Rent from Tenants

Collecting Back Rent and Damages in Residential Landlord-Tenant Cases

–By Daniel B. Peters, Attorney at Genesis Law Firm

Typically when a landlord comes to me to discuss evicting a tenant, one of my first pieces of advice is to focus on getting the tenant out and not recovering the money they owe. That being said, there are times when attempting to collect damages or back rent in an eviction may make sense, and there are some methods that can prove useful.

Agreements to make payments over time. One of the most straightforward methods of collecting on a debt from a tenant is to come up with a payment plan. In order for this method to work you need to make the plan reasonable for the tenant and provide an incentive for the tenant to pay. To be reasonable, the payments need to relate to the tenant’s ability to pay. If the tenant wasn’t able to pay you $1,200 per month for rent, then a payment plan requiring them to pay $500 per month while they have to pay rent at a new home is probably not going to be feasible. Then, in order to provide an incentive to pay you usually need to forgive a significant portion of the damages. Depending on the tenant’s ability to pay and other circumstances, forgiving half of the debt may be reasonable.

Selling Tenant’s Abandoned Property. There are circumstances under which a landlord may sell tenant’s property that has been abandoned after the tenant has vacated or if the tenant requests the landlord store property after the sheriff comes out to enforce an eviction order. However, in either of these situations, much care must be taken to follow all proper procedures or a landlord could be put in the awkward situation of having to explain to a judge why he or she illegally sold a tenant’s property.

After Abandonment: If the tenant vacates the property and leaves property behind, a landlord may follow the procedures provided in RCW 59.18.310. This requires the landlord to give notice to the tenant that he has the property. The tenant must then come forward and claim the property. If the tenant fails to claim the property, the tenant may sell the property and use the proceeds to cover costs associated with the sale as well as debts owed to the landlord under the tenancy.

After Physical Eviction by the Sheriff with Request for Storage: Before a sheriff will go out to enforce a writ of restitution and physically evict a tenant, he will provide the tenants with a request for storage of personal property form pursuant to RCW 59.18.312. If the tenant returns the form, then the landlord is required to store the property, and the landlord may then elect to store the property in a reasonable manner and provide a bill to the tenant. The tenant must then pay the costs within 30-days, or the landlord may sell the property. Again, the proceeds may be used to cover costs associated with the sale as well as debts owed to the landlord.

Garnishment. Garnishment may be available as a form of collection in an eviction case after a judgment has been issued in an eviction case. A judgment creditor may garnish the debtor’s wages or accounts (such as bank accounts). Usually when a tenant has failed to pay they are not going to have money in accounts, and the likelihood of collection on relatively small debts is not going to be worth the effort. However, given the right circumstances, there may be times when garnishment makes sense. In order to garnish a bank account, you will need a social security number (or tax identification number for corporate tenants).

Execution. If you receive a money judgment, and the tenant has sufficient property which could be used to satisfy the debt, you might be able to “execute on the judgment.” This is a fairly complicated process which involves the court authorizing the sheriff to go and seize property (personal property or real estate) and then sell the property, with the proceeds going first to pay off the judgment, and then any remainder going to the judgment debtor.

Collection Agency. With a collection agency, you essentially sell the tenant’s debt to a third party (generally at a greatly reduced rate). The benefit of this is that its simple and you let somebody else do the work, but you won’t be able to receive the full amount of the debt.

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