Being a landlord can be challenging, especially when one of your tenants fails to pay rent. The laws in all states allow you to initiate an eviction proceeding, or unlawful detainer lawsuit, against the tenant if they have repeatedly failed to pay rent. In order to get the process started, however, you first have to serve your tenant with a notice to pay rent or quit.
Written notice to vacate
In many states, failing to pay one month's rent is not enough to evict a tenant, but you can still communicate with the tenant by phone, email, or letter, reminding them to pay the rent. If, on the other hand, your tenant is habitually late paying rent—usually for two months or more—you can serve your tenant with a notice to pay rent or quit.
Each state has its own requirements about how much notice to give the tenant. Some states have three-day notices to pay rent or quit; other states have five-day notices, 10-day notices, or 14-day notices. The notices allow a tenant to pay the rent within the designated time, or the tenant must leave the premises, or "quit." If the tenant refuses to pay or move out, you can terminate the lease and commence an eviction or unlawful detainer proceeding.
Serving the tenant with notice
As a landlord, you can serve a notice to pay rent or quit by personally delivering the notice to the tenant. Each state, though, has its own rules for serving the tenant, so be sure to follow the laws in your state or check with a landlord-tenant attorney. Some states require serving the notice on the tenant by:
- Using a process server or sheriff
- Serving the tenant by mail
- Posting the notice on the door to the apartment or house the tenant occupies
If you use an attorney, use one who represents landlords, not tenants. If the tenant actually moves out, they've broken the lease, and you can sue them for rent owed pursuant to the lease.
How to write a notice to pay or quit
Writing a notice to pay rent or quit is relatively easy if you use a form designated for that purpose, or you can have an attorney or online service provider prepare one for you. Sometimes the forms are available at the eviction or housing court. If you're preparing the notice from scratch, you may want to make it into a form letter that you can use in the future.
While each state is different, most of the information in a notice to pay rent or quit must include:
- The date of the notice to pay rent or quit
- A clear indication, in all caps, at the top of the notice that the writing is a FIVE-DAY NOTICE TO QUIT FOR NONPAYMENT OF RENT, or however many days' notice you're required to give
- A statement in writing that the tenant has three, five, 10, or other number of days to pay or quit
- The names of all tenants on the lease, and their address, including the apartment number
- How much rent is due and which part of the lease the tenant violated
- A notice that if the tenant doesn't pay within the requisite number of days, you'll be forced to bring an eviction case in court
- Where the tenant must pay the rent
- Your signature
Paying rent after serving notice
After notice is served on the tenant, they must pay within the time frame in the notice, so if the tenant gets a three-day notice to pay rent or quit, they must pay within three days. Once the tenant pays, they have cured the breach of the lease and cannot be evicted.
If the tenant offers to pay part of the rent, then it's up to you if you want to accept it. If you take a partial payment, no matter what promises the tenant gives about paying the balance, you cannot evict them without serving a new notice to quit. Any amount of money the tenant pays waives your right to evict them, and you must serve a new notice if you decide later to go ahead with the eviction.
Once the time to pay or quit has passed and the tenant hasn't complied, you can take the next step of filing for eviction. If you're not sure how to proceed, or if you want someone else to do this for you, consider using a Pay Rent or Quit template to prepare the notice to pay rent or quit, since it serves as the first document in a legal eviction process.