The Small Claims Court is a great system for recovering small amounts of money that are owed to you. In exchange for a filing fee, you can have your case tried by a judge who may order a tenant to pay you what is due.
The best thing about Small Claims Court is that you don't need a lawyer. Some states even ban lawyers entirely in Small Claims trials. You'll need to pay a filing fee, which can be as low as $15, but the sort of skyrocketing expenses that can happen in other types of trials are not a concern.
Common Small Claims Court Actions
The maximum award offered by a Small Claims Court is between $3,000 and $5,000, depending on the state. This makes it ideal for the kind of disputes that occasionally emerge in a landlord's life.
Property Repair Costs
It's every landlord's worst nightmare: when your tenants move out, you may find that they have left your property in such disrepair that even their security deposit won't cover the costs to fix it. This is one of the most common reasons for landlords to take tenants to court.
In cases where the client is clearly in breach of the lease contract, such as not having paid their rent, the court can help to force payment. In reality, just the threat of a court date is often enough to convince the tenant to pay up.
Third Party Services
As a client yourself, you can take action against service providers such as plumbers, electricians, and cleaners if they fail to provide the agreed service, or if they damage your property while working on it.
Things to Consider Before Going to Court
The Small Claims Court is an important part of the landlord's toolkit, but you shouldn't head down the legal route until you've considered a few other things.
If the tenancy has ended in an eviction, you'll need to prove that you followed your state's guidelines for removing a tenant. This may include copies of move-out letters or eviction notices.
You'll always need a copy of the tenancy agreement to demonstrate how the tenant broke it. If no agreement was signed, the case will be governed by your state's statutory laws.
Bring any other documents that support your case, like invoices if you've had to pay for cleaning and repairs. Also, be sure that you understand the court's paperwork requirements. Some courts have specific submission rules that require you to submit two copies of everything, for example.
Speaking to the Tenant First
It's surprising how many people go directly to court without attempting to resolve the dispute in person first. There's no point in being too trigger-happy, since many cases won't proceed unless there has been some attempt to amicably resolve the dispute. In some cases, the verdict may recommend using some kind of mediation service to reach an agreement, so it's best to make a reasonable attempt to settle things directly with the other person before taking things to court.
Everyone enters into a tenancy agreement in good faith, and most leases end on good terms. But if they don't, it's good to know that Small Claims Court can help you get the money you're owed.
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