When a tenant fails to pay his rent on time and doesn't offer a good explanation, the solution is usually clear: eviction. But eviction is an unpleasant process that can sometimes drag on for weeks or months, according to Ann Clary Gordon, head of the real estate department at the Baltimore law firm of Shapiro & Olander.
If a tenant is three or more days late with his rent and has not explained why, remind him with a phone call or a letter, according to Leigh Robinson, author of "Landlording" (1988: Express Publications, El Cerrito, Calif.). You may also want to present him with a "Notice to Pay Rent or Quit," a document that states that the rental account is delinquent and that if it is not paid up, legal proceedings against the tenant will follow. Listen sympathetically to the tenant's explanations, but extract a commitment to pay on or before a certain date. If the rent is not paid at that point, begin eviction proceedings.
"You have to move quickly, because there is money lost every day when you don't remedy the situation," Mr. Robinson said.
Typically, a landlord will file a complaint with the district court when a tenant doesn't pay his rent. Once the court has issued a summons, a hearing date is set which is usually not more than five or seven days after the complaint has been filed.
If the tenant does not show up at the hearing, a judgment is usually entered permitting the landlord to repossess the dwelling unit, said Ms. Gordon. The landlord sets up an appointment with the sheriff or constable to execute the judgment -- putting out some of the tenant's belongings on the street. That is usually done within two or three weeks of filing the complaint.
What can lengthen the process, however, is a provision allowing the tenant to pay the rent due at any time before the sheriff or constable has put the tenant's belongings out on the street. The tenant can pay late three times without being evicted. The fourth time, however, the tenant may be ejected.
"A smart tenant can make things very unpleasant and costly for the landlord," said Ms. Gordon, noting that the process can, in these cases, last up to four months.
Other complications occur when a tenant shows up at a hearing and charges that the dwelling unit is in bad condition, according to Jim Wright, head of the real estate group at the law firm of Venable, Baetjer and Howard. Rent may be paid into a rent escrow account until the landlord fixes the property.
Even if an eviction is executed immediately, it still means loss of income for the landlord, Mr. Wright said.
"A landlord will usually have lost 30 days while getting rid of one tenant, and then it takes another 30 days to find another tenant," Mr. Wright said. "And often he'll have to repaint the apartment and make repairs."
For those reasons, Mr. Wright stressed the importance of checking a prospective tenant's background and ability to pay thoroughly.