Landlords’ #1 Legal Mistake

Posted on September 17, 2012 by

Last week, Houston Long, a fellow real estate investor and longtime friend (though he doesn’t like admitting to the “longtime friend” part), had to take a tenant to Magistrate Court to seek an eviction.  The tenant had quit paying rent.  This left Houston with no option but to try and get the tenant out and his rental property back.

Taking a tenant to court should be a no-other-choice decision.  For Houston, who’s been managing tenants and rental properties for more than eight years, this is the first time he’s had to take a tenant to court.  Previously, he had been able to resolve all landlord-tenant issues at the tenant’s kitchen table without getting a Magistrate Judge involved.

Houston didn’t ask me to attend his dispossessory hearing, but with it being his first time in court and because I was secretly hoping his case would turn into an exciting landlord-tenant train wreck, I couldn’t keep myself away.

On dispo day, the Magistrate Judge walked in, banged his gavel, and called Houston and his tenant forward for each to present his case.  After asking a few questions, the Judge ruled in favor of Houston and gave the tenant seven days to move from the property.

Afterward, once the courtroom had been vacated, I asked the Judge the following question: What is the biggest mistake you see landlords make when they’re trying to evict a tenant?

His answer: Landlords taking possession of their rental property before they have the legal right to do so. 

The Judge slowly explained (so even someone like me could understand) that before a landlord can take possession of his property, two things should happen.  First, the tenant needs to give the keys back to the landlord.  Second, the landlord should get something in writing from the tenant saying that the tenant has moved from the property.  Of the two things, the second is a lot more important than the first!

For example: You drive by one of your rentals and it looks vacant.  Upon inspecting the property, you only see scattered trash on the floor, no furniture or other personal property that – in your opinion – has any value.  Later that day, you show up with trash bags and cleaning equipment.  A few hours later, the house is spotless and you stick a For Rent sign in the yard.

Honestly, how many of us – “us” being experienced landlords – have done this?  (I’m not saying that I’ve ever done this, of course!)  Well guess what?  A judge could call this an illegal eviction.  More importantly, doing this – if your tenant has a good understanding of the law – can lead to a whole passel of trouble and expense for you!

Yes, I know, your property is obviously vacant.  It’s clear that your tenant moved out without telling you.  No matter – the law is the law.

So what are you supposed to do if you come across this situation?  Simple – if you don’t have a signed letter from the tenant telling you they’ve vacated the property, handle it the same way you’d handle any eviction…file a dispo and follow the rules.  Again, the law is the law.  Period!

Gotta add one more thing.  After winning his case, and because I didn’t try to start the wave in court, Houston treated me to a coffee.  This is when I realized that there’s coffee – and then there’s coffee!  My coffee is old school – black.  Houston’s coffee smelled like cinnamon toast and was covered in whipped cream – I didn’t see the cherry on top…guess it had sunk.  Geeze!

Bill & Kim CookBill & Kim Cook are a husband and wife real estate investing team. They live in Adairsville, Georgia and have been investing in real estate since 1995. They specialize in buying single-family homes, mobile homes and mobile home parks. They also run North Georgia REIA and teach folks how to successfully invest in real estate.

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