I got into the landlord business by accident. Everything was going well, at least, for a while.

I thought I was lucky, since my screening process consisted of a neighbor knowing a person who needed a place. (Now I know having a well-established tenant screening process is essential for finding the right tenants.) Eventually, not surprisingly, my tenant stopped paying rent.

Since I didn’t have much experience as a landlord at the time, I listened to my tenant’s excuses and regularly took payments late. Before too long, my tenant was six months behind on rent.

Yikes!

I learned a thing or two since then, and now I know what to do if a tenant doesn’t pay rent. If you’re a landlord, you should know, too.

1. Talk with your tenant

There’s a phrase I learned from Dr. Phil: “You teach people how to treat you.” By letting my tenant pay late every month, they learned when their bills piled up, they could skip paying rent without any repercussions.

Instead, I should have talked with my tenant. I should have asked what the problem was. It’s a good thing to be understanding, but tenants need to realize that they need to pay rent on time, or they can’t stay.

Let your tenant who won’t pay rent know that you still need to pay your bills and, therefore, can’t afford not to receive rent.

The first time rent is late, let your tenant know that because you understand that renting this place has become a hardship, you’re willing to let them out of their lease early without penalty if they leave by the end of the week. If they don’t want to do that, let them know that you’ll be giving them a formal eviction notice.

That might be all it takes to get your tenant back on track and paying rent on time. When faced with the idea of needing to leave the property, quickly finding another place, and coming up with moving costs (not to mention paying rent and a security deposit elsewhere), paying rent to you will probably become a top priority.

2. Send a “pay or quit” notice

Almost every state requires a landlord to send a “notice to pay or quit” when a tenant fails to pay rent. Basically, this is a formal letter (or email) that says, “Hey, you forgot to pay rent! You have X days to pay it in full, or your lease will be terminated and you’ll have to move out.”

In most states, this “X” notice period is short, in the range of three to five days. If they don’t pay and they don’t move out, you can formally terminate their agreement and they lose the right to occupy the dwelling. If your tenant isn’t paying rent and won’t leave, then you have to file an action with your local eviction court.

3. File an eviction action

The only way to legally “force” a tenant out of a property is with the sheriff’s help. A landlord is never allowed to lock out a tenant or turn off essential utilities.

If you have a rogue tenant, you might have to go down to your local courthouse and fill out the proper paperwork for an eviction hearing. They will likely want to see the notice to pay or quit that you sent, so be sure to bring it with you.

Once you pay the court fees, the administrator will schedule your hearing, which is usually two to six weeks out. You might be responsible for serving the tenant the subpoena, but some courts will do this for you.

Then, show up on your court date, explain your case, and hopefully you will win a judgment against the tenant. You can then hire the sheriff to remove the tenant by force.

4. Pay your tenant to leave: cash for keys

If your tenant is not paying rent after your talk, you still have a chance to avoid the eviction process. You can make a deal. If your tenant isn’t paying the rent because of financial problems, they might be motivated to move pronto if you pay them.

Yes, I know this approach feels wrong. They owe you money, so why should you pay them?

Take your emotions out of the equation, and weigh the costs and benefits in a businesslike manner to make the decision. An eviction will get the tenant out. But it won’t be immediate. Check with your local jurisdiction to find out how long evictions typically take.

Note: Evictions generally take longer than you want to wait, typically one to three months.

If your tenant leaves immediately because you paid them, say, $250, $500, or even $1,000, you will probably be better off. You’ll save yourself from being stressed over the next month or more from going through the eviction process and then trying to collect on the judgment.

5. Hire a property manager or a lawyer

If you aren’t up for dealing with a tenant who stops paying rent, or if you aren’t enforcing timely rent payments each month, you might be better off hiring a property manager. The same tenant who might try to get away with not paying you for a month or two probably won’t try that once a professional property manager is in charge.

The management company is a neutral third party with systems in place for handling unpleasant situations.

Alternatively, you could hire a lawyer who will try to hunt down your money and barrage the tenant with notices and formal letters.

Bottom line

The first time a tenant pays rent late, take it seriously and communicate with them. You want to set clear boundaries right away before your tenant stops paying rent and the situation gets out of hand.