Under normal circumstances, being a landlord is fairly straightforward, provided you have a solid understanding of landlord-tenant laws. At the same time, it’s never been easy.
Thanks to the CDC’s national eviction moratorium (and several extensions), landlords have had to exercise extra caution when managing their properties. National and state moratorium regulations conflict, making it hard to pinpoint what qualifies as a legal eviction.
For example, Houston property investors got a big surprise when a Texas judge declared the moratorium unconstitutional. Many thought the ruling would allow them to evict tenants who haven’t paid rent in nearly a year.
However, the judge never issued an injunction to stop the moratorium. Instead, his decision anticipated that the CDC would withdraw the moratorium.
Not surprisingly, the CDC never did. Although some evictions were processed in Texas, many landlords were still too worried about potential lawsuits to file.
If you’re holding onto your rental properties during the national eviction moratorium, here’s what you need to do to stay out of legal trouble.
1. Hire a property management company
It’s stressful being a landlord during normal circumstances, and it’s even harder under the moratorium. Hiring a property management company is the most effective step you can take. For example, landlords in Houston hire Green Residential so they don’t have to worry about a thing.
It’s not just evictions that have been halted. Between the national moratorium and state government responses, landlords have been barred from taking all kinds of actions, such as giving no-cause notices to vacate, charging late fees, and refusing to accept rental assistance payments.
If you’re in a state like Texas, where the moratorium has been ruled illegal, you definitely want a property manager working on your behalf. A team of experienced property managers who know state and federal laws will be on top of all the changes.
You can’t afford to make a mistake as a landlord under an eviction moratorium. If you wrongfully evict a tenant under the protections, you could end up losing more than you’d like.
2. Document everything
Documentation is the only way to establish an accurate timeline of events, including tenant interactions. It’s critical to document all conversations, lease violations, disagreements, emails, and text messages.
The moratorium only protects renters from evictions after they’ve failed to pay rent due to a pandemic-related financial hardship. If a tenant violates the lease, creates a nuisance or any other problem, you can still move forward with an eviction in spite of the moratorium.
Proper and thorough documentation is absolutely necessary to prevent tenants from claiming they’ve been wrongfully evicted.
3. Stay up to date with Supreme Court rulings
Whenever possible, check on Supreme Court cases to find out whether the moratorium has been altered or overturned. Your state’s Supreme Court might suspend or overturn the moratorium the way Texas did earlier in 2021.
Even if your state Supreme Court overturns the moratorium, always consult a lawyer before filing an eviction lawsuit. You don’t want to get into a situation where you’re legally right, but the courts may still not rule in your favor.
A lawyer will know how the courts are likely to rule, and can prevent you from making a wrong move.
4. Stay up to date with state laws
The national eviction moratorium isn’t the only law you have to worry about. Certain states have enacted strict moratoriums on top of the national one. Washington state has gone a step further by turning some moratorium regulations into state law.
In May 2021, Governor Jay Inslee signed a new law that prohibits no-cause evictions and no-cause notices to vacate for month-to-month leases. Previously, landlords could provide tenants with a 20-day or even a 60-day notice to vacate for no reason. Now that’s illegal.
Inslee’s new law is an attempt to limit the number of evictions during the pandemic and makes it harder for landlords to force tenants to move out unless there is a good reason. For example, tenants can still be asked to leave for lease violations; but without a lease violation, the allowable circumstances are few.
There are also ramifications for being dishonest about the reason. For instance, you can give a tenant notice to vacate if you’re selling your property or you or a family member intend to move into the unit.
However, if you don’t place your property on the market within a certain time frame after giving a tenant notice, that tenant can sue you … and might well win.
5. Communicate clearly and politely with your tenants
You can’t avoid a lawsuit brought by an angry tenant, but you can make sure you don’t look bad in court. Always communicate clearly and politely with your tenants. Don’t give them any ammunition to use against you in court.
Most tenants film interactions with their landlords these days, so you don’t want to be caught on camera screaming and swearing at a renter. Even if your tenant is the instigator, and constantly tries to provoke you into arguments, if you lose your temper you’ll give a judge greater reason to question your side of the story.
Always be polite. No matter what your tenant throws at you, figuratively or literally.
6. Don’t neglect your landlord duties
Never neglect your responsibilities as a landlord. Even if your tenant has stopped paying rent, you’re still obligated to make repairs that are necessary. If you fail to make repairs, your tenants can sue you and win even if they’re not paying rent.
7. Accept rental assistance payments
If your tenant is trying to pay rent through a rental assistance program, don’t refuse the money. If you’re refusing payments in order to evict a tenant for falling behind on the rent, you’ll be waiting a long time.
The national moratorium has been extended once again through October 3, 2021, and another extension might follow. Accept rental assistance payments from your tenants and/or their assistance programs. Don’t pass up the opportunity for income, especially if you’re still paying down your mortgage.
8. Participate in rental assistance programs
If your tenant needs you to opt in to a rental assistance program in order to get help paying the rent, you should be agreeable and participate. Some programs require both the tenant and landlord to sign up.
If you’re worried about the conditions you have to agree to in order to participate in a rental assistance program, that’s understandable. Just be aware that not accepting the money can have legal consequences.
In some states, rental assistance programs aren’t allowed to give the money directly to tenants. However, some states will give the money to them if the landlord refuses to accept the payment.
If your tenant is trying to participate in a rental assistance program, it means they want to pay at least some rent. Don’t ignore their attempt to get you paid. If they decide to sue you later, your refusal to participate could hurt your case.
Always do your best as a landlord
When times get tough, do your best to maintain a level head and keep the peace with your renters. If anyone is not paying rent, be polite and avoid arguments at all costs.
Not all tenants are withholding rent intentionally, and it won’t help to get upset. Do everything by the book, maintain thorough documentation, and like all the other landlords across the country, you’ll have to ride this moratorium out.