Landlords: The Best Way to Avoid an Unlawful Detainer Is to Screen Your Tenant Applicants

Law Office of Robert L. Firth Feb. 3, 2014

My law firm represents landlords in unlawful detainers. An “unlawful detainer” is the legal name for the law suit in which a landlord sues to evict a tenant who isn’t paying rent or is otherwise in breach of the lease. Normally, they are fairly routine. If the tenant isn’t paying, you send the tenant a “three day notice to quit” and if the tenant ignores it, you file the unlawful detainer and serve it on the tenant. (At least this is the process in California where I practice law.) If the tenant files and answer and demands a trial, it is usually a stall tactic to buy a little more time before the inevitable move out. Occasionally they become more complicated. My firm recently filed an unlawful detainer against a tenant who stopped paying rent less than three months after they moved in. We served the three day notice to quit and then the unlawful detainer. The next thing we know, the tenant filed a ten page “motion to quash” the law suit on the grounds that the three day notice an the law suit were both improperly served. The tenant then got a hearing date in front of the judge, but didn’t bother to notify my office until the afternoon before the hearing was held. I assume they were hoping we would be caught by surprise and not show up, in which case the judge would have probably granted the tenant’s motion and the landlord would be back at square one. As it happens we had been at the clerk’s office the Friday before and were aware of the hearing. I showed up with my client as well as the person who served the three day notice and the unlawful detainer. The judge found in our favor, but the actual hearing on the unlawful detainer couldn’t be scheduled for another three weeks. I have no doubt we are going to win on the unlawful detainer and even get a judgment for the lost rent and my attorney’s fees, but the landlord is now going to have another month without rent and what will probably be an uncollectible judgment for the past due rent. However, this could have all been avoided if the landlord had bothered to check out the references on the tenant’s application for rent and run a credit report. A little investigating would have shown that this particular tenant had been the subject of eight unlawful detainers in the past ten years. Would you really want to rent to someone with that kind of history? At the very least, the landlord could demand the first month’s rent, last month’s rent an a security deposit. Rather than check it out himself, my landlord relied on the representation of the real estate agent who found the tenant that everything was “OK”. (The agent was a friend of the landlord’s son and apparently either inexperienced in the rental process, too busy or too driven by the rental commission to do a thorough job.) The moral of the story: DO a thorough background check on your prospective tenants. In California, you can charge the tenant up to $35.00 to run the credit report, and even if you don’t, it is some of the best money you as a landlord will ever spend.