Many landlords have a checklist they go through when they examine a property for damages after a tenant moves out, allowing them to discover any damage to the property and withhold the cost of repairs from the security deposit. Sometimes, however, the damage isn’t discovered for weeks or even months afterward, and the security deposit has been released. While landlords have the right to sue a tenant in this case, there’s a limit to how long they can wait to do so.
How Long Do You Have to Sue?
Generally, a landlord has up to 4 to 6 years to sue for damages as long as they have proof of the damage incurred by the tenant and records of the cost of repairs. This may vary from state to state, however, so it’s essential to check with your individual state and local laws. Although a landlord may have the right to sue after this amount of time, it’s better to try to get repayment from the tenant as early as possible to ensure a strong case.
Some tenants are under the impression that they must be provided with a written copy of the damages within 21 days of moving, but that’s not the case; landlords are only required to provide tenants with a written explanation of any damage costs that are being withheld from their security deposit. This must be sent out within a month of the tenant moving out of the property.
What Can You Sue for?
Landlords cannot sue for normal wear and tear of a property; older paint or carpet is not the tenants’ responsibility to maintain. If the tenant caused obvious damage to the property while living there, such as holes in the wall, the tenant can be held liable. If the landlord has already released the security deposit, they can take the tenant to small claims court to cover the repair costs of such damages.
What to Expect with the Court Process
If a landlord has decided to sue, this is how they can expect the court process to generally go:
- The landlord will send a notice of the damages incurred to the tenant via certified mail. If the tenant doesn’t respond within the appropriate time period, the landlord should then file in small claims court.
- The court will contact the landlord and the tenant with court information.
- The landlord should gather all documents related to damages and repair costs.
- The landlord presents their evidence in court.
- The court will determine a verdict; if they side in the landlord’s favor, the landlord can collect the damage fees. If the tenant is unwilling to pay or can’t pay, the landlord may have to contact a collection agent, the local sheriff, or the tenant’s employer to set up a payment plan to get the fees they’re owed.
Preventing the Need to Sue
Suing in small claims court should be a last resort; ideally, it’s best to prevent the need to sue altogether by doing a thorough inspection of the rental before and after the tenant resides at the property. Take photographs of any existing or new damage and keep complete records of all repairs done on the property. If needed, hold repair costs from the security deposit. Choosing the right tenants is another way to prevent damage to the property; while unexpected damage can occur, using a reputable tenant screening service can help landlords choose ideal tenants and reduce the risk of damages and disrespectful behavior.
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