No property owner or manager wants to be in this situation, but unfortunately, it happens. Lucky for you, I was in this very situation and learned some valuable lessons. I was surprised at how little information was available on the topic, so hopefully, this helps some people out.
Confirm They’re Behind Bars
The first thing you need to do is confirm the status of your tenant. In my case, we didn’t receive the rent and so we started the standard late notices and received no response. We never had an issue with the tenant before so we started to get a little concerned.
We asked the other tenants in the triplex if they had seen anyone from his unit. They hadn’t but jokingly said that he might be in jail. I laughed it off but soon came to the uncomfortable realization that it was a very real possibility.
Like anyone else who doesn’t know where to turn next, I went to Google. Florida just so happens to be very open about its arrests and I remembered seeing mugshots in local newspapers and websites. If you need to check the whole state, you can go to the intuitively named floridastatemugshots.org. Information here can be limited though and they will refer you to a paysite if you want full records.
The better option is to go to the county arrest inquiry site if the respective county runs such a site. For Hillsborough County FL, the database is updated every 30 minutes and the information is posted within 30 minutes of an arrest.
After checking two counties, I made the unfortunate discovery that my tenant had in fact been arrested. He was allegedly pulled over with more than 25lbs of marijuana in his vehicle, in addition to about 11 other minor charges they tacked on. Given the charges, I made the assumption this wouldn’t be a quick process and set about determining my options.
You shouldn’t lose hope if your tenant is arrested. I have heard of situations where the tenant was only going to be detained for a (relatively) short time and arranged to have his rent paid even while incarcerated. This is certainly the best possible outcome, but read on for the less-than-perfect scenarios.
Contact the Roommates
Ideally, all three people that were living in the unit would be the lease. In that situation, assuming you have a well-written lease, you could inform the remaining tenants of the unit that they were still responsible for the full rent. But as you could already tell, this was not an ideal situation. I inherited all the tenants when I purchased the property and this unit only had one of the three residents on the lease.
Of course, the only one on the lease was the one who got arrested. I had hoped to negotiate with the other roommates to stay in the unit for their portion of the rent, but surprise, surprise, when I went to speak with them and check out the unit, they had all cleared out.
Not So Fast
In this scenario, I’m sure many would be inclined to simply throw out whatever was left, fix it up and get it rented out to stop the hemorrhaging of lost income. As my lawyer and many articles told me, do NOT do this!
You may be able to take possession of the unit through your state’s abandonment clause, but do the research to find out what the conditions are within your state. In most cases, you will be required to retain the tenant’s property for at least 30 days and could easily be sued or charged if you throw it away or try to sell it.
The other fun fact that I failed to mention is that all of this was happening right as the COVID epidemic was kicking off, along with the associated moratoria on evictions. So even if I wanted to evict, I didn’t even know if it would be possible. A much better option for me was to make the tenant an offer he couldn’t refuse.
Similar to a “cash for keys” approach, I offered to not evict or come after him for rents due if he voluntarily ended the lease and arranged to have someone clear out the unit. This was not a cheap option with $2400 in rents already lost, but it seemed better than the potential of another 2-4 months to evict in uncertain legal times and still not getting any of the money.
Because of COVID, the only way for me to communicate with the tenant was by video conference with him at the jail. It is one of the most bizarre “Zoom calls” I’ve done but he agreed to the terms and was in fact appreciative of the offer. I then sent the agreement to him for signature in a self-addressed envelope so we had everything in writing.
In what was the best possible outcome given the situation, within 30 days the unit was cleared out and I was able to start working on it to get it rent-ready. After some minor aesthetic upgrades, I even took the rent from $1220 to $1300 per month. At the end of the day, I’ll take a sip from my “half-full” glass and call that win.
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