What happens when you’re far from your rental property and the renters start causing problems? Cue the headaches. It’s not easy managing a rental from afar, and if your renters are fellow servicemen/women, prepare for even bigger challenges. Here’s an overview of what long-distance landlords need to know, and how they can be prepared for just such a possibility.
Many landlords are reluctant to file for eviction, because there is no real winner in an eviction case. The tenants have to move out, and the landlord usually doesn’t get their rent. What’s more, the process can take a long time (especially for military personnel), so it’s important that landlords start the process as soon as the problem starts.
When your tenants violate the lease agreement, whether by failing to pay rent or breaking another lease clause, the first step is serving a written notice on them. These notices vary by state, and vary by the lease violation, but they are basically a letter informing the tenant that they have a certain number of days to fix the problem or face eviction.
Once you’ve served the correct notice on the tenants (usually by certified mail), you have to wait the additional grace period to give them a chance to correct the issue. If they fail to do so, the landlord then files in court for eviction. (There is an extra step for military personnel – more on this below.)
The court will schedule a hearing, where the tenant is invited to appear and object to the eviction. The landlord (or their representative) must show up in person.
If the judge sides with the landlord, then eventually the landlord can schedule an actual eviction date. Usually this is scheduled with the sheriff’s department, but it varies by state.
On the actual day of the eviction, the landlord (or their representative) will meet the sheriff at the property. The landlord will unlock the door and the sheriff will enter and oversee the “transfer of possession” back to the landlord. In other words, they’ll make sure the tenant leaves peacefully, and will give the landlord permission to send in contractors to start repairing and cleaning up the property.
The SCRA & Who’s Covered
The Servicemembers’ Civil Relief Act (SCRA) gives military renters additional protections, making it more difficult and lengthier to evict them if they breach the lease agreement.
Who’s covered by the SCRA? All active-duty military personnel, including activated members of the National Guard, and the commissioned corps of the Public Health Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Their spouses and dependent children are also covered.
But these special protections only apply to tenants with rents below a certain threshold. In 2016, only tenants with monthly rents below $3,451.20 qualify, but that number changes yearly to keep up with inflation.
Protections Granted by the SCRA
Tenants covered by the SCRA may terminate a lease early if they are deployed. Once the tenant sends written notice to the landlord or property manager, along with copies of their orders to deploy, the lease will terminate 30 days after the next rent payment is due. So, if a tenant gives notice on March 12, the lease will officially terminate as of the end of April.
In an eviction case, the landlord must disclose in their eviction filing that the tenant is covered by the SCRA. At the eviction hearing, the judge will determine if the service member’s military job is affecting their ability to pay the rent. If so, the judge may give the tenant up to an extra three months to pay the rent before allowing the eviction to go through.
If the tenant does not appear in court, landlords must be prepared to file an extra affidavit, verifying whether the tenant is active duty military personnel or not. If the landlord can’t verify either way, there’s a separate affidavit they must file. Landlords can check online for free at the official SCRA website, but be sure to have the tenant’s Social Security Number handy. This is another reason to keep copies of your tenants’ rental applications.
Landlords may sometimes petition to have a portion of military tenants’ pay deducted for rent. This is usually handled through the offices of the Secretary of Defense or Secretary of Transportation.
Bring in Local Help
It’s hard to show up for an eviction hearing in Boston if you’re stationed in Guam. You’ll need to hire local help, right at the time when you’re most pinched by having a mortgage payment but no rent to cover it.
In most U.S. cities, there are eviction service companies that will serve the eviction notice for you, file in court for you, show up to the court hearing and sometimes even appear on eviction day to oversee your contractors.
These services range in price, but an eviction will usually cost you a few hundred dollars.
Then there are the contractors. Someone will need to clean out any junk left by the old tenants, fix the holes they punched in the walls, replace the carpets with burn marks in them, etc. Landlords should ask for references from local friends, family or local online communities.
Then someone will need to advertise the vacant unit, show the property, screen applicants and sign a new lease agreement. If all that sounds like a lot of trouble to do from afar, well, it is. Consider hiring a local property management company to handle all of the above for you (including the eviction).
Looking for a summary of the SCRA? Here’s a paper released by the Congressional Research Service, but as summaries go it’s not exactly concise at 30 pages.
When it comes time to hire help, ask communities of local real estate investors for referrals. Most U.S. cities have Facebook groups for local real estate investors, who can be great sources for referrals.
There are also websites that rate different types of contractors and professionals, such as AngiesList.com.
The first eviction you have to file is always the worst, and takes longer since you don’t know the ropes. But if the eviction process teaches you nothing else, it will certainly showcase the importance of aggressive tenant screening, to avoid this problem in the future.
Brian Davis is a co-founder of Spark Rental, an online rental automation hub and education resource for landlords and property managers. A landlord himself with 15 rental properties, Brian is also a weekly columnist for BiggerPockets, and has served as a rental expert for MSN.com, Realtor.com, Trulia.com and dozens of other publishers.