Q&A: How Can I Collect Unpaid Rent From a Tenant Who Moves Out?

What do you do about unpaid rent when the tenant moves out?

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Question:

I own a few small rental properties, and one of my tenants has not paid rent for the past two months. After I served her an eviction notice, she moved out, but without paying me the back rent. How can I collect this money?

Answer:

You can start by using the tenant’s security deposit (if any) to cover the unpaid rent. If the deposit doesn’t cover the two month’s rent, you can sue your former tenant in small claims court (or a similar civil court) for the back rent.

If you want the tenants to pay you the money owed, then you would sue the tenants in “assumpsit.” Suing in assumpsit simply means that you are asking the court to make the tenants pay the debt owed to you. In addition to suing for the unpaid rent, most states allow the landlord to also sue for the interest owed on the unpaid rent. Although not every state uses the term assumpsit anymore, every state allows a landlord to sue for unpaid rent in its civil courts.

In Pennsylvania, for example, the Pennsylvania Landlord-Tenant Act allows a landlord to recover rent by assumpsit (see68 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. §250.301)). However, the Pennsylvania civil courts no longer use the term assumpsit when describing this type of lawsuit. This type of lawsuit is just a civil action (see 246 Pa. Code §300.301). The Pennsylvania court system provides online complaint templates for the recovery of rent at www.pacourts.us/forms/for-the-public, under "Landlord."

To find your state small claims court rules, see the 50 State Overview of Small Claims Rules on the Nolo site. For details on your state rules covering rent, see the State-by-State Rent Rules chart on the Nolo site. And for your state’s laws on security deposits, see Security Deposit Limits and Deadlines and Landlord's Guide to Security Deposit Disputes in Small Claims Court, State by State, on the Nolo site.

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