What to Do When Your Tenant Is Late With the Rent

Rules landlords must follow to terminate a tenancy for nonpayment of rent

By , Legal Editor

At one time or another, every landlord must deal with a tenant who pays rent late. If this is a one-time incident involving a good long-term tenant, someone who wants a few extra days to pay rent one month, you might agree to the tenant's request. For most landlords, however, the best approach is to consistently stress to tenants that rent must be paid on the due date (typically the first of the month), and that late payments might result in termination of the tenancy. Your lease or rental agreement is the best place to spell out the rules for when, where, and how tenants should pay the rent, and consequences for failure to pay rent on time, including late rent fees and termination of the tenancy.

States have specific rules and procedures on terminations and evictions. Typically, landlords can immediately send a non-rent-paying tenant a termination notice for nonpayment of rent giving the tenant a few days in which to pay up or move. These are usually called pay rent or quit notices—they give the tenant a few days to pay or move out ("quit"). If a tenant neither pays nor moves within the time limit, the landlord can then file an eviction lawsuit against the tenant.

Rules for terminating a tenancy for nonpayment of rent vary widely among states, including:

  • When you may serve a pay rent or quit notice. Most states allow landlords to send the notice the first day the rent is late; since most leases require rent be paid by the first of the month, this is usually the second of the month (although a few states allow extra time if the first falls on a weekend or holiday). But a handful of states give tenants a grace period and don't allow landlords to send a pay rent or quit notice until the tenant is a certain number of days late.
  • How you must serve the notice to the tenant. Some states require landlords to serve the notice personally; most states allow mailing.

  • How much time the tenant has to pay the rent before you can terminate the tenancy. In most states, landlords must give tenants three to five days to pay up or face a termination or eviction notice. If the tenant pays up (including any required late fees), that's it: The tenant doesn't need to move. But some states don't give tenants any time at all. Instead, you can simply demand that a tenant who fails to pay rent on time—even just once—leave, by giving the tenant what's called an unconditional quit notice; this type of notice doesn't give the tenant the option to pay the rent—the tenant must move out. And if the tenant fails to move out, the landlord may then file an eviction lawsuit to legally take possession of the rental property.
  • What happens if a tenant is late paying rent more than once. In many states, a tenant who is late with the rent a second or third time within a specified number of months, might face an immediate termination (an unconditional quit notice) the moment the rent is late.

States set very specific rules for how and when landlords can evict a tenant who doesn't pay rent on time. Learn more about specific renters' and tenants' rights information by state. For details on your state rules, see State Laws on Termination for Nonpayment of Rent.

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