Two weeks ago, I posted about having to evict one of my tenants who was apparently too picky or too lazy to move out at the end of her 30-day notice period, and who refused to work with me on my offer to let her stay for an additional fifteen days. Once it was clear she wasn’t going to agree, I pulled the trigger and started the eviction process. I was planning to do a quick eviction update anyway, but I’m happy to report the best news: the tenant moved out!
Eviction Update: The Past Two Weeks
So after negotiations with the tenant broke down, I got the eviction rolling. The eviction attorneys I use have a website where you can start your eviction by filling out a form and uploading your lease and the notice that the eviction is based on. That was nice, because I didn’t have to wait for them to open. They got the unlawful detainer complaint filed the same day. The next step was trying to serve the tenant with the complaint.
For regular tenant notices, including notices of rent increases or notices to quit, you can serve the tenant yourself. You need to try to personally deliver it to the tenant, but if the tenant isn’t home, you can either (a) leave the notice with a responsible person and mail a second copy to the tenant’s address, or (2) “post and mail”: you post a copy of the notice on their front door and mail another copy to their address. (Quick note: this is California law. Check the rules in your own state.)
But when it comes to an actual lawsuit (an eviction is a lawsuit), you can’t serve the complaint on the tenant yourself. You can have it served by a friend or someone else over the age of 18, but it’s better to have it served by someone who at least knows the basics of how to serve a complaint. Most people choose to have their lawsuit served by a professional process server, or sometimes by the sheriff. The sheriff can be really slow sometimes, since it’s near the bottom of their priority list, so process servers are generally a better choice.
But even process servers have their limits. If a tenant isn’t home, or if a tenant pretends they’re not home and won’t come to the door, then there is nothing the process server can do other than trying another time, or waiting out the tenant in a stakeout, but that’s really expensive. Usually they try coming back another time.
I checked the website regularly to see if there was an update on whether the tenant was served. After a week and a half of trying, though, the process servers still weren’t able to serve the tenant. This is so frustrating. You know the tenant is just trying to run the clock as long as possible, and there’s not much you can do about it. I asked if the process servers were trying in the evenings, since I know that the tenant and her husband both work. The attorneys said that the process servers had tried, and that it was obvious that the tenants were actively avoiding service. One way you can tell someone’s avoiding service is when the lights are on, and the doorbell rings, and they peek out of the curtains and then shut off all the lights and pretend not to be home.
In unlawful detainer actions, if you’re unsuccessful in getting the tenant served after multiple attempts, you can file a motion with the court asking for permission for the process servers to serve the tenant by posting and mailing, just like you would with a regular notice. This was my obvious next step. The cost of that motion wasn’t included in the flat-fee eviction that I paid for, so unfortunately it cost me another $88.50 to get that done. I paid the money, the attorneys drafted and filed the motion, and we were just waiting for the court to grant it.
The Tenant Reaches Out by Email
But then on Friday afternoon (April 15th), the tenant emailed me. She said “Are you still coming to check the apt at 7 or what time is better for you?” WTF?
In case you need a refresher of where things left off, the last communication between the tenant and me was my proposal that she pay half a month’s rent and promise to be out by the night of the April 15th. I said I could pick up the keys from her at 7 pm, and return her security deposit right then and there. The tenant responded that she couldn’t promise to be out by that date, so if I needed to go forward with the eviction, then that was that. So I filed for the eviction, and she obviously knew the process servers were trying to serve her, because she was dodging service. So imagine my surprise to get that message from her about moving out that night, on the 15th.
I immediately responded, asking if she was going to move out that night. I was tempted to say something like “you know you’re not going to get your security deposit back, right?” but that would have been stupid. Why mention anything negative, when that might make her change her mind about moving? Anyway, she confirmed that they were moving out, so I said I could come by at 7 to pick up the keys. She asked if I might be able to come a little earlier, and I said I would text when I was leaving work.
I ended up leaving work earlier than normal, at around 5:15 pm. I texted the tenant, and she said she wasn’t quite ready yet. She said it might be more like 8 pm. I remembered that this was the tenant who waited until the last minute to even start looking for an apartment, and made the educated guess that she was not good at estimating the amount of time needed to get her shit together, literally and figuratively. Keeping that in mind, I got to the apartment at around 8:30. She wasn’t even close to ready. She said she thought she needed another hour, and I told her to just text me when she was finished. The boyfriend and I went to dinner, and then killed time by walking around, unloading some materials I ordered for the remodeling project, and finally, reading a book in the car. The tenant finally texted me at 11:30 pm, saying she was done.
She still had some stuff left in the garage, but apart from that, they were out. I told them to just empty the garage within the next couple of days, and take their padlock with them. After they remove the last of their things, I will put my own padlock on the garage and start using it to store materials for the remodel.
As soon as they drove away, I went into her unit and changed the locks. This is critical. Let’s say she moves out, like she did, and hands me the keys. The next day, I call off the eviction. Then, during the night, they sneak back in using an extra key. I would have to start the entire eviction process over again. New door locks don’t cost that much money, and they don’t take very long to replace. It’s worth it to replace the locks right then and there, even if it’s 11:30 on a Friday night and you just want to go home and go to bed.
The Final Question: Try to Collect Legal Fees or Let it Go?
Now that the tenant has vacated, the unlawful detainer action is technically moot. I’ve already regained possession of the unit. But I think one of my options is to essentially convert the lawsuit into a regular small claims action against the tenant in order to collect the money the tenant owes me. Her security deposit, by coincidence, was the exact amount of half a month’s rent, so it would cover her remaining in the unit from April 1 to April 15. The only thing left to collect would be the costs of the eviction, consisting of filing fees, process server fees, and attorneys’ fees.
Unfortunately, because her lease was so crappy (remember that I inherited it from the former building owner), there is no attorneys’ fees provision. So the most I could collect would be filing fees and process server fees. That would be around $545. Here’s the tricky part, though: she has now moved out, and I don’t know where her new address will be. Even if I get the court to grant the order to “post and mail” the complaint, I wouldn’t know where to post it or mail it. I reminded the tenant to have her mail forwarded, and she said that she had nowhere to forward it to yet. I don’t really believe her, but either way, I don’t know what her next address will be. It might cost me another $100 or more just to find out where she’s living now, just so I could pursue it to judgment. For now, I’m thinking it’s best to just dismiss the action and forget about it. I have enough going on with the building repairs, anyway, so if the financial payoff is small or non-existent, and it will require some mental bandwidth from me, I think I’d rather just wash my hands of it.
What do you think? Would you pursue the additional money, even if it cost you some money to get there, or would you just let it go and move on?