When you have to evict a tenant from your rental property anywhere in California, the actual court proceedings will take place in the Superior Court of whatever county houses your rental property. For example, if you have a Long Beach rental property, you’ll have to file for eviction in a Los Angeles County superior court.
There are also reasons to take your tenant to small claims court. The most important reason being you want to earn back any money that’s owed after you’ve evicted your tenant.
If you’ve never been to small claims court before – congratulations.
Today, we want to prepare you for what you should expect and what you’ll need to do when you’re taking an evicted tenant back to court in order to settle the damages that are owed to you even after you get possession of your property.
Start with the Security Deposit
Before you even go to court, you’ll have to do a complete accounting of the security deposit. Hopefully, you collected at least the equivalent of one month’s rent from the tenant before they moved into your home. Depending on how much of a deposit you collected and how much was owed to you in back rent and fees when the tenant was evicted, you will hopefully be able to cover a good chunk of the outstanding debt.
If your security deposit covers most of what the evicted tenant owes you, re-consider whether you want to go to small claims court to win back the rest. If it’s only like $200 or $300 that we’re talking about, the time and the stress may not be worth it to you. Wanting to win is understandable, but a successful real estate investor can usually absorb a modest loss and move on.
You can also avoid small claims court by trying to collect the money that’s owed from the tenant directly. Send letters with itemized statements and if you think it’s worth their fee, consider hiring a collections agency to try to get your money back. You can also work with some of the local law firms that specialize in collecting past due accounts.
In our experience, we’ve found that it’s usually best for all parties if you avoid the courthouse. Even if you feel like you have a good chance of winning, it’s not always going to be worth your time to file a claim in court. You’ve already been through an eviction.
Sometimes, you might be able to reach an agreement with your tenant for an amount to be paid back to you. If you had to take your tenant all the way to court just to get them to vacate the property, it’s not completely likely that this will happen. But, it’s worth a shot. Reach out and let your tenants know what they owe after being evicted. Maybe they’ll see the light or want to start over and they’ll come up with the money or offer to pay a little bit now and more later. If you settle on a compromised amount that’s less than what they owe you in total, you can still see it as a win. Make sure you both sign a settlement agreement that outlines what you agreed to accept and stipulates there will be further court action if the amount agreed up on is not paid.
The point we’re trying to make is that small claims court, while serving a purpose, isn’t always fun. If you can avoid it, you should.
What to Expect from Small Claims Court
Hopefully, you’re working with a qualified Long Beach property management company that can help you prepare for your small claims court action. If you’re on your own, you may want to talk to a property manager or consult an attorney.
You will need to decide how much your tenant owes you. That should include any unpaid rent, late fees, court fees, filing fees, legal fees, and the cost to repair any damage or conduct any cleaning after the tenant moved out. If the keys were not returned, you can include the cost of rekeying the property. Make sure you have an amount that’s documented and easily defended if the judge asks you where you came up with the amount that your tenant owes you. Everything should be itemized, and you should include receipts, invoices, work orders, and statements.
When you file your court action, you will receive a hearing date, and your tenants will also receive an official notice of your lawsuit and the court hearing date.
Make sure you are prepared. If you have any hope of winning a judgment in support of the money that you’re owed, you have to have all of your ducks in a row. Bring a copy of your lease as well as the eviction order. All of your court records should be with you as well as your financial records. You want to leave no doubt in the court’s mind that you are legally entitled to the monies that you’re requesting from the tenant.
Don’t show up without copies of receipts for work that was completed. You cannot expect to be reimbursed for legal fees that you cannot prove or work at the property that wasn’t actually done.
Bring everything relevant to the case to court.
Your California small claims court isn’t as formal as a criminal courtroom or the eviction proceedings that you went through when you were removing the tenant from your property. However, you might want to arrive early so you’re comfortable with the process and the surroundings. This is especially useful if it’s your first time in this particular court. Most hearings are open to the public, so you can even witness a few before you go in for your own. This might relax you. Practice what you’re going to say to make your case, and review your documentation in detail so you’re prepared and articulate.
Your former tenants will have an opportunity to defend themselves against your claims. There’s no telling what they might come up with, but be prepared for any possible defense or counter-compliant. This is your case, so it’s essentially yours to lose. Unless you make some glaring error or you can’t support your claims, you should come out as the winner.
The entire court case should last more than an hour. The judge will decide whether or not the tenant owes you money and if you win, you’ll be awarded a judgment with a specific amount attached to it.
Judgment versus Collections: When Do You Get your Money?
Winning your small claims court action will probably feel great. You should spend some time enjoying the vindication and the justice.
One thing to remember is that just because you get a judgment in court doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get that money any time in the near future. This gives you a legal record of what the tenant owes you, and you can make claims against future wages and assets. But, there’s actually no telling when the tenant will actually pay you the money, or if they’ll ever be able to at all.
These are some of the things to expect when you take a former tenant to small claims court in California. For help, contact us at Progressive Property Management.