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My tenant won't pay rent. Can I change the locks and move the furniture out of the house?

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Q:

My tenant won't pay rent. Can I change the locks and move the furniture out of the house?

A:

The relationship between tenants and landlords is governed by state statutes, the terms of the lease contract, as well as federal laws outlined in the Uniform Residential Landlord and Tenant Act. Tenant-landlord relationships are no longer governed by the notion of caveat emptor, but rather by tenant/landlord statutes that have been updated and readily accepted throughout America.

Protected Rights of the Tenant

Tenant rights, protected under state, federal and contractual law, generally include the right to quiet enjoyment (including protection from disturbances from other tenants), and protection from the disruption of utilities and unlawful eviction.

Landlords also have the legal responsibility to repair any condition within the rental unit that “materially affects the health and safety of the tenant.” Furthermore, state laws also generally require dwellings to have specific safety equipment, including security latches and dead bolts on specified doors.

The Legal Requirements of the Tenant

Although laws have been updated to significantly protect tenants, tenants still have legal responsibilities to meet the terms of their lease agreement. One of the most significant requirements is the requirement to pay the rent by a specified date. Other requirements can include maintaining the rental unit or yard, not disturbing other tenants, not having animals within a rental unit (unless specifically allowed), and not subletting an apartment without prior approval.

Failure of the tenant to meet the terms of the lease agreement, however, does not give the landlord the legal right to force the removal of the tenant or their property until certain legal steps are taken.

Steps for a Lawful Eviction

The first step for a landlord to legally terminate the tenancy of a renter is to give the tenant proper written notice to vacate, as defined under a particular state’s termination statutes. State termination statutes are very detailed, providing various requirements for different types of tenancies, the methods for delivering a termination notice, and the number of days that a tenant must be given to vacate the property.

Landlords who decide to simply change the locks on a rental unit and move the tenant’s furniture out of the house can face serious legal consequences.

If the notice to vacate is ignored and the tenant refuses to leave the property, a landlord may take the next step to evict the tenant. Eviction procedures, however, can differ based on whether there is a written lease agreement or the tenant is a tenant at will.

Evicting a Tenant with a Lease Agreement

Assuming there is a lease agreement, the first step to evict the tenant is to review the lease. The agreement should state the terms of the lease and reasons why the tenant may be evicted.

For example, lease agreements can generally be terminated if there is a material breach of the lease. While failure to pay the rent is the most common material breach of the lease, other breaches can include disturbing other tenants or causing major damages to the rental unit.

The steps to complete the eviction are generally outlined in state statutes. For example, the State of Texas Property Code states that “a landlord is required to give the tenant a written notice to vacate before filing an eviction suit.”

The number of days that the landlord must wait to send the notice to vacate must follow the time established under the lease. If a time is not set by the lease, then the notice to vacate must allow at least three days for the tenant to vacate (except in cases of foreclosure).

If the tenant fails to leave, the landlord still does not have the right to change the locks and move the furniture out of the house, but they do have the right to file an eviction lawsuit.

Tenants can take certain lawful steps to contest the eviction, but assuming the landlord can prove that the tenant materially breached the terms of the lease agreement, or failed to leave after it was not legally renewed, the court will rule in favor of the landlord and have a constable assigned to supervise the eviction.

What if there isn't a lease agreement?

If there isn't a lease agreement and the tenant is under a month-to-month tenancy, it’s very important to review your state’s statutes. Generally, assuming that your landlord is not violating any discrimination laws and that the tenant is not living under any specified rent control arrangement, the landlord may be able to request a tenant leave a rental unit without cause simply by giving them appropriate notice (i.e. 30 to 60 days).

What should I do if I receive a notice to vacate?

The first step is to talk to your landlord. Some misunderstandings can be resolved with a simple conversation. For example, you may be able to avoid an eviction simply by paying your rent or rehoming a pet that was not allowed under the terms of your lease.

It’s also important to review the validity of the notice to vacate or the potential eviction lawsuit. For example, if you have not materially breached the lease agreement; your landlord is simply retaliating against you for requesting repairs; or discriminating against you based upon your gender, religion, race or disability, you may be able to fight the removal.

If you have been asked to vacate and you have breached the contractual agreement, it’s important to consider the ramifications of fighting the eviction. If you do decide to fight and you lose, the eviction will become part of your rental record and may make it more difficult to rent in the future.

Bottom line: Although a landlord cannot toss your belongings outside and change the locks to the rental house, they do have legal steps that they can take to legally evict you for a material breach of a lease. If there is no legal lease agreement, they also may be allowed to ask you to vacate their property for no reason, assuming that they give you sufficient warning.

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