Your monthly rent is likely the biggest bill you face each month. Particularly if you live in a city with a high cost of living, rent can eat up over 30 percent of your income. Between student loans, car payments, and groceries, it’s easy to fall behind on your rent.
If you’ve missed payments and your landlord has initiated the eviction process, you’re not alone: A 2016 report from Redfin found that approximately 2.7 million renters in the United States faced eviction in 2015.
You can recover from eviction and, in some cases, even fix the situation and get back in good standing with your landlord. Here’s how.
What happens when you get evicted
Coming home to an eviction notice on your door can be a heartbreaking and terrifying experience. But before you panic about not having a roof over your head, know that the legal eviction process can take weeks. Receiving a notice does not mean you will be homeless overnight.
Shaolaine Loving, an attorney who has worked many cases involving landlord-tenant law, says it’s important to research how the eviction process works in your state.
“Know your state’s eviction laws,” Loving said. “Every state can have different laws in terms of timelines and procedures tenants have to follow to preserve their rights. Fortunately, a lot of information is now available online.
“Local legal aid clinics may offer free classes or seminars on the topic,” she continued, “or courts may publish information, so try to check out all free resources.”
Receiving an eviction notice
It doesn’t matter if you owe $1,000 or $10 to your landlord. If you owe any money at all after the due date, you can be evicted. In general, if you fall behind on your rent, your landlord will give you a notice to pay your balance or vacate the premises within a set period. The length of the notice can vary from state to state, but it can be as short as three days.
“Depending on your state’s laws, if you receive an eviction notice, you might have to immediately act within the prescribed timeframe to contest the eviction in court,” said Loving. “It’s possible that your landlord may have to issue a subsequent notice before taking further action, however.”
That notice doesn’t mean you have to be out of the apartment within that period; it just means you have a couple of days to pay your balance in full. If you fail to do so, your landlord can pursue a court order to evict you. They cannot force you out of your home until they get a court order.
Going to court
You can’t stop your landlord from getting a court order unless you pay the rent in full. To dispute your landlord’s actions, you have to wait to receive the court order. Then, you can choose to fight the eviction in court.
“You can […] seek to set aside an eviction order if you believe the court wrongfully granted it,” said Loving.
In some cases, the court might find that the landlord cannot lawfully evict you. Depending on your state, the following defenses could help you stay in your home:
- You paid your rent in full, but your landlord says you didn’t.
- You offered to pay rent, but your landlord wouldn’t accept payment.
- You gave your landlord a partial payment.
- The rental unit had an issue with essential services, such as a lack of heat or running water, and the landlord didn’t fix it.
If you contest the eviction and lose, you could have just days left to move. If you’re still in the home after that time, the landlord can escalate the situation to the local police. Depending on where you live, you could be forced out right away or given 48 hours or more to move.
How to handle the eviction process
By understanding how the process works, you can come up with a plan. If you’re facing an eviction, you have three options to rectify the situation.
1. Pay in full or negotiate a payment plan
If you’d like to stay in the home, you can end the eviction process by paying the outstanding balance in full. If that sounds impossible, you might be able to gather the money you need by selling toys, clothes, or furniture, taking on extra hours at work, or working a side hustle.
You may even consider asking family and friends for help. It might feel embarrassing, but losing a little pride to stay in a safe home could be worth it.
If you’re going through a temporary financial setback, such as expensive car repairs or unexpected medical bills, you can try to negotiate a payment plan with your landlord. Offer to pay back what you owe spread out over several weeks; they might be willing to let you stay and end the eviction notice.
If you and the landlord agree to a payment plan, make sure you get the terms of the plan in writing. That way, if the landlord changes their mind and continues the eviction process, you have proof that you came to an agreement if you go to court.
2. Consider hiring an attorney
If you believe your landlord is wrongfully evicting you, hiring an attorney who specializes in tenant law can help contest the court order — but it’s not essential.
“Hiring an attorney is not necessary if you are comfortable navigating the court system solo,” said Loving. “However, some people feel more comfortable having an attorney represent them to ensure all required legal steps are followed and that their arguments are ideally crafted and heard.
“Also,” she added, “some people have never been to court and are nervous about the process, so would rather have someone else speak for them.”
If you think hiring a lawyer is impossible with your financial situation, there are resources available to help you. There are many organizations and law firms that offer free or heavily discounted legal aid.
If you don’t know where to start, use LawHelp’s database to find a list of legal assistance programs near you.
3. Seek financial assistance
If you simply cannot afford your rent, there are several organizations that might help you when you’ve fallen on tough times. These resources are intended to keep low- and middle-income families in their homes during a financial emergency.
In some cases, they’ll provide one-time aid in the form of a check for your landlord. If you’re facing just a temporary setback and expect to be back on your feet shortly, that might be the best option. If it’s a more long-term situation, the organization might provide financial assistance and other aid, such as job training or free money management classes.
RentAssistance has a list of government programs, nonprofit organizations, and religious institutions offering financial assistance in your area.
Keeping a roof over your head
Having shelter for you and your family is a basic necessity. If you’ve fallen behind on your rent payments and are facing eviction, there are ways to repair the situation. By taking quick action and asking for help when needed throughout the eviction process, you might be able to find a way to stay in your home.
If you’re having trouble making ends meet and need assistance to get other essentials like food or utilities, these charitable resources can help get you back on your feet.
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