No Self Help Evictions

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I receive several emails each month from various individuals inquiring on how to evict a deadbeat tenant. I am often aghast to learn some of the self help measure employed by people that if challenged, could potentially result in liability. The law as many of you that have been in business already know, seeks to initially protect the "little guy" no matter the harm or destruction wrought to your business or property. In order to evict a tenant you, as the land lord, must comply in every respect with your state’s statutory "Unlawful Detainer" procedure. The Unlawful Detainer procedure is "summary" in nature; i.e. it is designed to quickly (quickly being defined as less than 14 days) resolve issues between landlords and tenants. However, because the courts are willing to move with extraordinary speed in these procedures, it is crucial that you not make any mistakes in the process. If you do you will likely to have to start the process over.

As you go through the unlawful detainer process, you must keep the following in mind:

NO SELF HELP: Unless your tenant moves out voluntarily, you must go through the legal process to evict him. This is true regardless of how much damage the tenant may be causing to your property. Any attempt at self-help eviction may cost you many thousands of dollars in attorney fees and judgments and months or years of frustration and grief. The justification is that you have other legal remedies available under law to pursue the tenant for damages (this just goes to show you that the people who make the laws do not deal with tenants. I would love to ask a lawmaker or judge how successful they have been in collecting against a deadbeat tenant for the damages they caused to THEIR PROPERTIES. I assume the answer would be a puzzled expression because they have never tried nor do they understand that the tenant is often out of work and disappears into the night never to been seen from again. Ah, but I digress.) Although the legal process might seem too slow expensive and against your interest, it is nothing compared to the legal problems you will incur if you wrongfully evict a tenant. Here are a few examples of things you may not do under any circumstances:

You may not change the locks;
You may not cut off essential services such as water, electricity and gas. This is true even if the services are in your name;
You may not refuse to keep the premises in substantially habitable condition.

THE PROCEDURE IS "SUMMARY": To compensate for the prohibition against "self help," the law gives you a rapid method to obtain possession of your property through the courts. This method is called the "Unlawful Detainer" lawsuit. Although it may often seem that the tenant has all the rights, and that an eviction takes too long, consider the following comparisons:

Other lawsuits which do not involve the possession of real property give the defendant have six times as long to answer the lawsuit after being served with the initial papers;
Other lawsuits which do not involve possession of real property are usually set for trial 90 days to six months after a trial is requested. Unlawful Detainers must be set for trial within 20 days of the request;
Unlawful Detainers enjoy priority over all other civil cases on the date of trial. Other lawsuits are often continued from one date to another several times before they go to trial;
Superior Court lawsuits which do not involve possession of real property may take years to be completed.

Best of luck in your investing.

Posted by Clint Coons, asset protection attorney, Seattle, WA

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