No Good Deed Goes Unpunished — Landlords Protect Yourselves

You only have to get burned once to realize that trying to be a benevolent landlord can cost you a lot of money and sleep. I represent large landlords, which lease hundreds of residential units, and they are keenly aware that, while it is important to be sensitive to your tenants, you cannot address problems or untimely rent without first securing adequate legal protection. Those of you that are landlords of one or just a few residential rental units need to apply the same principles. Smaller landlords are generally more susceptible to being convinced to provide assistance to a distressed tenant. There is an old adage that no good deed goes unpunished. While that is a little harsh, in the landlord business, it may not be far off.  A landlord delaying its efforts to protect itself often allows or even encourages a tenant to get into more and more trouble from which it cannot reasonably recover. So when I represent a smaller landlord, my advice is almost always to get your legal protection in place before considering providing any significant relief to a tenant.

For example, one landlord client with several rental units, who is very shrewd and successful, took a liking to a tenant and uncharacteristically continued to give him break after break until he was behind on many months of rent, despite all sorts of promises that he would make good. Long story short, she got burned by the tenant. Had she simply obtained some protection through a standard landlord-tenant lawsuit, she could have obtained significant leverage and control and the problem would have never degraded to the point that she ended up with months of uncollectible rent. Her former tenant has no money to pay a large judgment and ended up with months of free rent. I don’t think the tenant was trying to cheat her, but the net effect is the same. She let her tenant make rent a low priority, and he paid other bills and obligations while essentially enjoying a free place to live. Once the back rent grew to a significant level, he was never going to pay it back. In that case, the landlord was truly punished for her good deed.

A landlord should almost always file a lawsuit upon the first signs of trouble. There are exceptions where the trouble is a non-monetary breach such as noise violations or relatively minor issues other than payment of rent. In those instances, a stern warning letter may be appropriate before bringing a lawsuit. However, if the non-monetary breach is serious, such as acts of violence or careless or intentional action resulting in harm to the leased premises, a prompt lawsuit seeking possession is probably the best course of action. In Pennsylvania, residential lease matters are filed with the local small claims courts (District Justices) which are adept at handling those types of disputes. The court costs are fairly inexpensive, and you get a hearing fast.

In Pennsylvania, there is a rule that a tenant can always cure a judgment for rent, commonly referred to as “pay and stay.” Any time before the constable takes the premises back, the tenant can pay the overdue rent and costs; the judgment is satisfied and the tenant can stay. Therefore, the tenant has some time to rectify the rent issue. Often, the mere filing of the action will cause the tenant to immediately bring the rent current and also serve as a reminder that payment of rent should be a priority. Most landlords hold one month’s rent as security which could eventually be used to recover some of the unpaid rent but its real purpose is to be a deposit against any damage to the premises. So, if you can get a judgment and possession back quickly, you should not lose much. If you let the amount of unpaid rent go beyond the amount of the deposit, you cannot count on collecting a judgment for that amount once the tenant has been evicted because it is often not practical to make significant legal efforts to collect a relatively small amount of money. Further, the person may be “judgment proof.”Therefore, when the tenant gets behind on rent, you are in a race to protect yourself.

Upon filing the complaint for rent, the court will schedule a hearing to take place within 10 days. At the hearing, you will  get a judgment for the rent owed along with late fees, legal fees and costs as stated in the lease (if your lease doesn’t provide for recovery of those items you need to revise the form you use). You can seek possession of the premises after 10 days from the date of the judgment. The right to the return of possession by the constable, which is granted through the judgment, is your assurance that you will either get paid or get the property back. Once you ask the court to have the constable take possession back, it takes about 10 more days (the constable has to post notice and set a date for the actual eviction).

If you want to be a “nice” landlord, you can give the tenant some extra time or other help but only after you have secured the judgment. Thereafter, you can hold-up asking the court to send out the constable as long as the tenant is making good faith efforts to resolve the problem. However, if the tenant is not acting in good faith, you have the ability to quickly proceed with the eviction. Working from a position of strength allows the landlord to have flexibility to work with a given tenant but not be taken for a ride. That way, if the tenant does not properly address the back rent, you can instruct the constable to return possession to you. It is simply an act of tough love. If you follow these simple guidelines, it will be much more unlikely for you, as the landlord, to be punished for a good deed.

— Curt Ward


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