It’s now been just over two months since I bought my fourplex, and I’m still waiting for the rest of my tenants to clear out so I can start getting some of these major repairs done.  I gave one tenant 30 days’ notice to vacate, and she took 45 days and made me start an eviction because she wasn’t willing to come to an alternative agreement with me.  Finally, she moved out on her own.  Now I’m down to the last two tenants.  They were both supposed to be out by April 30th.  I’ve been nudging them for over a month now to make sure they had another place to live lined up, but I think both of them were putting it off for a long time.  Now the 30th has come and gone, and they’re still there.  It’s so frustrating that I can’t get the tenants to move out!

Let me acknowledge up front that I am not a very patient person.  I try, but once I’ve decided to do something, I want to get up and go get it done, NOW.  So it’s a struggle for me to deal with other people who have a much slower timeline than I do.  But I can’t, for the life of me, figure out why these guys who have had two months to find another place to live have been unable to do so.  The rental market is hot in Orange County, California, but it’s not impossible.

I really think the issue is just that they waited until the last two weeks to try to find a place, but that’s not enough time, especially considering that they both have pets (1 dog each, plus one has 10 chickens), they have limited income, they have larger families, which means they need to find 3-bedroom or larger apartments, and they need a garage or some other storage area to store their work tools.

What to Do When You Can’t Get the Tenants to Move Out

If you need to clear out your property, but the tenants just aren’t getting their butts in gear, you have just a couple of legal options (and a whole bunch of illegal ones).  The legal options are either (1) evict, or (2) negotiate. I didn’t rank the options in order of preference.  You have to decide, based on the situation, which option works best for you.

The illegal methods are virtually limitless, but I strongly encourage you not to do them.  Parking all of your tenant’s belongings on the front lawn, for example.  Or threatening or intimidating your tenant.  These are all options that can land you in serious hot water.  Remember that your tenants are people, and all people deserve to be treated with respect, even if they’re driving you crazy because they won’t leave your property.  Besides, with the legal options available to you, there’s nearly always some way to make it work.

Option 1: Evict

If you decide to go the eviction route, here’s what you can expect (in California, at least).  The cheapest eviction attorneys I’ve seen are the ones I use, and they are as efficient as you can get if you’re hiring someone else to do the eviction for you.  They charge $700 for a basic eviction, start to finish.  I think if the rents are above a certain threshold, they charge a little more.

Here are the basic steps in an eviction.  First, a complaint is prepared and filed with the court, setting forth the grounds for the eviction.  After a case number is assigned and the summons is issued, those papers are served on the tenant.  The tenant has a certain amount of time to respond to the complaint; usually 5 days, but depending on the method of service, it may be 10 days.  If the tenant files no response with the court, then you take their default, meaning you file paperwork for the court to enter saying that you automatically win.  That could go quickly, or it could take several days, depending on how fast the clerk works.  Then you submit the judgment paperwork and the writ of possession to the court, and the clerk has to enter the judgment and issue the writ.  Expect to wait another several days before you get those back.  Then you deliver the writ of possession to the sheriff, and the sheriff (eventually) goes and posts a notice on the tenant’s door giving them 5 days to vacate.  On the fifth day, the sheriff comes back, opens the door, makes sure all of the people are out (there may still be possessions there, but the people have to leave), and the landlord changes the locks.  Any leftover possessions are stored for a period of time, during which the tenant has the opportunity to claim them, and then afterward, they are either sold or disposed of, depending on their value.

Simple, right?  It’s actually not that complicated, once you’ve done the process a few times.  The problem is that things don’t always go so smoothly, and it can end up taking a long time if your tenant is difficult.  Also, that $700 fee I mentioned above?  That only applies if it’s the relatively easy case, where your tenant is served promptly with the paperwork and doesn’t respond to the complaint.  If your tenant avoids the process server, like mine did, there is an extra charge to prepare and file a motion to allow the tenant to be served by posting the documents on their front door.  You have to show that you’ve tried to serve the tenant the regular way several times, and that it was ineffective.  Only then will the court grant the motion and allow you to serve by posting.  If the tenant files an answer in court, contesting the eviction, there are additional fees associated with the necessary court appearances to deal with that.  If the tenant asks for a jury trial, oh boy, that’s going to delay it even further, and then you have extra court days of expense because it takes time to select a jury and present your case to them.

Because of the cost and hassle and delay involved, I normally don’t like to resort to eviction as a first choice.  If there’s a way to negotiate with the tenant and get the result you want faster and cheaper than an eviction, it’s a good idea.

Option 2: Negotiate

Negotiation is a major theme of this blog, and you’ll probably see it a lot.  Part of the reason for that may be that I’m an attorney, and negotiating is a huge part of my job.  But I think the primary reason I talk about negotiation so much is because that’s how adult human interactions are conducted.  Unless you really are the boss of somebody, everything has to be a negotiation.  You just can’t force someone to do something you want them to do, unless it’s also what they want to do (unless you’re backed by firepower, such as the sheriff or an army).

If you decide not to go with the firepower option (eviction, using the power of the courts and the sheriff), you’re going to have to negotiate.  See if you can find some middle ground that appeals to both you and the tenant.

Negotiating for Delinquent Rent

If the tenant is behind on rent, you might negotiate a payment schedule for them.  Be careful not to let them backslide, or you’re actually hurting yourself.  You’re better off evicting right away if your tenant is continuing to backslide on rent.  So when you negotiate the payment schedule, make sure you’re collecting slightly more than the rent you’re charging each month until the tenant is caught up.

If the tenant misses one payment on your payment schedule, you have to be ready to send it to eviction.  You already gave your tenant a second chance the moment you negotiated with them for a payment plan.  You can’t give them any more chances, or the tenant is just going to continue this slow backslide until you wake up and discover that your tenant is now behind several months’ rent, and it’s still going to be 45 to 60 days before you can get your property back in an eviction.

Negotiating for Possession

If rent isn’t the issue, and you really just need the property to be vacated, then negotiation tends to take the form of “what can I do to get these people out of my property now?”  You might offer them a little cash to leave.  You might give them a notice of a rent increase, which would only take effect if they stay past the length of the notice period.  You might threaten to evict them if they stay past the date of your Notice to Quit.  Or you might do all three.  That’s what I did.

When I first bought the building, I went around to the tenants and delivered them all a Notice to Quit (check state law to see how much notice you need to give).  At the same time, I delivered a Notice of Rent Increase, and raised the rent the maximum I could (10%) within a 30-day window.  I also delivered a cover letter explaining that I need the whole building to be vacant, and I offered them some cash if they would voluntarily move out after 30 days.  The idea was that if they moved in 30 days, I would pay them a couple hundred dollars, they wouldn’t ever have the rent increase hit, and I’d get the unit back in a short time-frame so I could start repairs.  If they wanted to stay the full 60 days, they miss out on the opportunity to get the couple hundred bucks, and they also have to pay the higher rent amount for the second month.

It should have worked.  It would have worked on a tenant like me.  I would have seen the whole picture, and figured out a way to get out in the 30 days and get the cash. But for these tenants, it didn’t happen.

In the next post, I’ll update you on the progress of the move-outs for those tenants, and how I had to re-negotiate to try to get them to go.