Probably one of the biggest problems we face in our office when dealing with landlord evictions are landlords that do not keep good records of how much rent has been collected and what is actually due. These landlords come to me, frustrated that their tenants are months behind in rent and causing all kinds of problems, and now they want to evict them. When I ask what the past due rent is, I get a blank stare, and the landlord tells me, “I don’t actually know, but at least two months.” I have to tell them that won’t cut it in court since the judge will want to know the exact amount due. Under California law, a residential landlord may not demand more rent than is actually due. If your demand in a three-day notice to pay rent or quit contains even a penny more than the actual rent due, the court is obligated to dismiss your case. You could be six weeks into a case and then be ordered to start over. Those six weeks end up being more unpaid rent as well as additional legal fees to start over.

Here are a few things you can do to have a clear record of what rent is due:

  1. Have a Written Rental Agreement: This is probably one of the most basic things a good landlord should have. Although many landlords do not fully utilize this tool to protect themselves, even a basic written agreement is good to have so you can establish the basic terms of the rental contract, including the monthly rental amount and when rent is to be paid.
  2. Keep a Rent Ledger of Rental Payments and Amounts Paid: From experience, I know that some landlords have no record of what rent a tenant has paid. My question is, how can you tell if you are making money if you have no idea what rental income your properties are bringing in? Not only is this bad from a business perspective, but if you do run into trouble with a non-paying or partial-paying tenant, how can you go to court and ask a judge to order a tenant to vacate a unit and pay you back rent? There are many ways you can keep track of this information such as keeping a simple notebook of when you received rental payments from a tenant or using a software program such as QuickBooks. But be sure to find something that will work for you.
  3. Do Not Let Rent Balances Get Out of Control: One reason many landlords lose track of rent balances is that they allow their tenants to get behind several months. Sometimes we see cases where a tenant is eight to twelve months behind in rent. To throw in a twist, sometimes tenants made partial payments during that period, causing the landlord to credit partial payments and keep up with the math to figure out what amount is still due. Don’t get stuck having to figure out this information at the lawyer’s office. Keep track of this information and seek legal help sooner rather than later to avoid a lot of headaches.

Get a written rental agreement, stay on track with your tenants’ rental payments and don’t let the rent balances get out of control. You will avoid a lot of problems if you do.