A large part of my practice involves assisting landlords throughout the rental process. I have written before on tips on being a successful landlord. I also have a portion of my website devoted to this topic. Here are several questions (and my responses) involving some of the issues that seem to come up time and time again as I represent landlords.
Prior to Renting
Q: Is there a way I can run a credit check or background check on a prospective tenant?
A: Yes. There are multiple websites (just search "tenant credit check") where you can purchase a credit report of a prospective tenant. The cost ranges from $20-$40 depending on how much information you are seeking. You should require the tenant to pay this upfront as an application fee, and also make sure you have the tenant sign a statement (included on the application itself) authorizing you to have these checks conducted.
Q: What information do I need to collect from a prospective tenant before renting to them?
A: I recommend having a standard application form filled out. The most important pieces of information are 1) full name, 2) multiple phone numbers, 3) social security number, 4) date of birth, 5) current employment information, and 6) prior landlords. All of this information will be useful in screening the person prior to renting or collecting on a money judgment after evicting. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I can provide you with an application form.
Q: Where can I get a residential lease agreement?
A: Email me at email@example.com and I will be happy to provide you with a tried and true lease agreement.
Q: How do I know what terms/provisions to use in the lease agreement?
A: Your best bet is to ask an attorney to assist you with filling out the lease agreement. Most of the common terms are easily understandable, however some rogue leases out there include provisions prohibited by law, so you want to make sure these are not used.
Q: How much can I take as a security deposit?
A: Normally, you can take an amount equal to 1 month’s rent as security deposit. So if the monthly rent is $1000, the security deposit should be $1000, or less.
Q: If the tenant fails to pay rent one month, do I have to apply the security deposit towards that unpaid month?
A: No, the tenant is required to pay the monthly rent even if a security deposit was paid at the start. This does not have to be credited to their account during the lease period.
Q: What do I do if the tenant stops paying rent?
A: As soon as the rent is late under the terms of the lease, you should provide a written notice of intent to terminate the lease. I recommend seeking assistance from an attorney at this step, at least for the first such incident, so that the attorney can ensure that you provide a proper notice.
Q: What do I do if the tenant has allowed other people to move in?
A: If this is a breach of the lease agreement (and it needs to be) you should provide a written notice of intent to terminate the lease. Note: this notice is very different from the type of notice used in cases of non-payment of rent, therefore I recommend seeking assistance from an attorney at this step.
Q: What do I do if I think the tenant is destroying my house?
A: Normally, you should provide a 48 hour notice of a particular time that you intend to enter into the property for the purposes of inspecting the property. If the tenant is indeed destroying the property, you should provide a written notice of intent to terminate the lease.
Q: How do I get rid of this tenant?
A: Only by filing an action in court, called an unlawful detainer. In
(and most other states) the landlord does not have the right to “self help.” That means that you must go through the court system and have the sheriff’s department physically remove the tenant and their property. Alabama
Q: Can I shut off power, water, or other utilities to the house?
A: No, no, and no. I often have a landlord-client who, prior to retaining me, and acting out of understandable frustration, called the power company or water board and instructed that services be stopped. The law can severely penalize a landlord for these actions, even if the tenant is not paying rent. The safe bet is to retain an attorney before things escalate to that point.
Q: How long will it take to evict the tenant?
A: Depending on the circumstances, usually 4-6 weeks.
Q: Is it possible to recover my money after evicting the tenant?
A: Yes, and this is made easier if the landlord has collected certain important information in the application process. It is possible to garnish the wages of the tenant if their employment is known, and that is usually the best option for collecting on your judgment.