There are a lot of different things to keep track of and take care of when you are a landlord.
One of the many things on the long list is checking for damages when a tenant moves out of one of your rental properties, but what happens when you discover hidden damages or problems caused by the tenant weeks or even months later?
You probably already know that you, as a landlord, can sue a tenant for damages. In an ideal world, you would notice damages before releasing the security deposit so that you could recoup them immediately.
Unfortunately, that is not always the case.
While you can still sue a tenant for damages after they move off of your property and you release the security deposit, there is a limit to how long you can wait to do so.
If you’re coming up on the end of that period, it’s important that you learn about what to do and when to do it right now.
Our guide will answer the most important question (how long does a landlord have to sue for damages?) and cover associated topics that will ensure you get paid back for damages to your investment.
A Table of Contents About Suing For Damages as a Landlord
- How Long Does a Landlord Have to Sue?
- State Specifics
- The Court Process
- Protecting From Future Claims
Let’s get into the most important question first: How long does a landlord have to sue a tenant after they move out?
There is a lot of different information thrown around online about how long this period is. While some say you only have 30 days, others believe you have up to six years. So, what is the real answer?
It is commonly accepted that you have up to four or even six years to pursue the cost of damages so long as you have proof of the damages and records of the repair costs.
Even though you have this long to sue for damages, it is better to seek repayment earlier rather than later to ensure that you can track down the tenant while you still have a credible case.
Why Do Some People Think the Period Is 30 Days?
Some tenants falsely believe that they must be given written notice of damages within 21 days of moving out, but that is not true.
The only thing related to damages that must be sent out within one month is any damage costs that are being withheld from their security deposit, as this deposit must be released within one month of moving out of a property.
What Kind Of Issues Can You Sue For?
Before you make the decision on whether or not it is necessary for you to sue your former tenant, let’s review what you can and cannot expect tenants to be held responsible for.
First, tenants are not responsible for any normal wear and tear. This means that old paint, flooring, or other commonly used fixtures are not their responsibility to keep up or maintain. If these are the only damages, you do not have a case against the tenant as they are your responsibility, not theirs.
If, however, there are evident damages done to the property while a tenant is living there such as holes in the wall or burns, the tenant can be held liable.
Whether the tenant tells you about these damages while they are living there or you discover them when they move out, you can take them to small claims court to cover the repair cost if you have already released the security deposit or it will not cover the total cost of repair.
At this time, it’s important we note that you as a landlord are responsible for learning and following procedures according to your state and local laws.
While the statute of limitations on lease agreement violations like this runs out at six years in some states, it may only last as long as one or two years in other states!
For that reason, it’s important that you search or inquire about these details with your local small claims court. As mentioned previously, the earlier you pursue a tenant for damages, the better. Your case will only become weaker and less credible with time!
Once you decide to sue a tenant for damages, you may be wondering about the court process that will follow.
While we won’t dive too deep into details for each step of going to small claims court, you can expect the procedure to look something like this:
- Send notice of damages owed to the tenant via certified mail. If they do not respond in the appropriate time period, file in small claims court.
- The court will then contact both you and the tenant with court information.
- Gather up details of the damages, repair costs paid, and any other documentation you have.
- Present your evidence in court.
- Await a verdict.
- If court ends in your favor, you can collect the fees. If they are not willing to pay or cannot pay, you may have to go to a collections agent, local sheriff, or their place of employment to set up a system to get paid back the money that you are legally owed.
To avoid falling into a situation where you need to take a tenant to small claims court, you should do a thorough rental inspection before and after the tenant lives in the property.
During this walkthrough, take photographic evidence of the state of the home. Keep records of all repairs you had to do, and withhold repair costs from the security deposit when applicable. By following all of these steps, you’ll be less likely to need to go to court to get paid for repairs.
Additionally, choosing the right tenants can help prevent damages from ever occurring. While accidents can happen, using a tenant screening service to choose your next tenants may reduce the risk of allowing a tenant who does not respect your property to live there.
Even if you return the security deposit to a tenant that moves out of one of your properties, you can still file against them in small claims court for the cost of repairing damages as long as the statute of limitations on your lease agreement is not yet up.
Generally speaking, this is what you need to know:
- Review local & state statute of limitations on real estate contracts
- Keep documentation of all damages and repair costs
- File in small claims court to get money back
While it may be tempting to just let the damages slide by if it is for less than a few hundred dollars, you should not pocket the cost of thousands of dollars of damages done to your properties by tenants. Instead, ensure that they pay the cost of repair so that you are not left in debt because of their irresponsibility.