I’ve been late on my rent once or twice—okay, more than twice—before. This wasn’t due to any “quick fix” like financial mismanagement, but rather because of a culmination of things that made it so that sometimes, money I desperately needed just wasn’t there. Los Angeles has been ranked as one of the least affordable places to rent in the five and a half years I’ve lived here. Plus, cash flows from any of my careers since college weren’t always trickling in at a consistent bi-monthly pace.
In those Heart of Darkness moments, I sweated the checkbook gymnastics and financial juggling of “will this clear before that” and “how many Saltine and ketchup sandwiches will I be eating,” and often wondered: What would happen if I just...didn’t pay my rent?
A few caveats before we continue:
The closest thing we have to federal law is the Uniform Residential Tenant Landlord Act (URLTA), which is more than 40 years old. Since we have a little thing called “states rights” in America, URLTA is more of a suggestion than a mandate: Every state has different laws. I’ll be referring to California laws, but if you want to check out other states, head to the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Also, I’m not a lawyer or even very smart, so if you make a serious life decision based on the words I’ve plunked out here, you're on your own. But I did consult real estate attorney David DiJulio from the DiJulio Law Group, who frequently deals with eviction cases.
From realtor blacklists to my ass on the streets, here’s what would happen if I stopped paying my rent:
To start (and I know this one from experience), I’d get a termination notice taped to my door from the property management company, telling me that if I don’t pay up in the next three days, they’ll start the process of evicting my deadbeat ass. Anything you’ve heard about a 30- or 60-day notice only applies if you haven’t done anything wrong and the landlord is trying to clear house. You lose that protection if you break your contract, which includes not adhering to your lease’s rent payment conditions.
At this stage, a reasonable person will usually talk to their landlord about a payment plan or other arrangement. Most landlords are human beings who understand one-off payment slips and financial hardships—and it never hurts to ask.
But if I still haven’t paid rent three days after the initial termination notice, I’d be squatting or “unlawfully occupying” my unit. Now, the landlord needs to go to court and file a lawsuit (Unlawful Detainer Action or “UD” as it’s known in the biz) to evict me. At this point, my credit isn’t fucked up yet, but I’ll have a hard time being able to rent again without subletting or finding someone to co-sign my lease. DiJulio explained that there are Building Owners and Managers Associations (BOMAs) in every major city that essentially blacklist those who’ve been branded with a UD.
But most states are pretty tenant-friendly when it comes to eviction. If my landlord doesn’t dot the i’s and cross the t’s when filing the suit, they might have to start from square one—which would buy me even more time.
If my landlord did everything by the books and filed a suit, then the court would have to serve me. I’d have to get served in person—and not in the fun dance-off way. Since I don’t live with anyone else, they won’t be able to leave the paperwork with someone else, so it’d be best to bunker down along as long as possible. The moment I step foot outside, a process server will likely pounce.
Once I’ve been served, I have five days to answer. If I don’t, it’s an automatic W for the landlord. If I file a response, I can get a hearing. If I contest the suit, the entire charade is extended further. Depending on the location, season, and court, my trial might be scheduled 4 to 6 weeks after my response. The trial itself would only take 15 minutes to an hour.
We go to court, and I lose, obviously. DiJulio says “about 90 percent or more of these cases go to the landlords.” If the judge is generous, I might get an additional 5 to 10 days to vacate. But if I’m still not out, the landlord has to apply for a lockout through the sheriff’s department.
Once that’s filed, an officer will show up “after” a specific date—depending on how backed up they are or which way the wind is blowing—but this could happen the very next day or a few days down the road. When an officer does arrive, they take everyone who’s inside the unit and puts them outside, and the landlord changes the locks.
Let’s say I was an even bigger idiot than I’d been this entire time and didn’t move any of my things. It’s now up to the landlord to put it in storage. The storage company will tell me what I need to pay to get it back (just their storage fees, not the unpaid rent), and anyone who’s seen Storage Wars knows what happens next. If I don’t pay the storage company for my shit within six months, my crappy Ikea furniture will be auctioned off to the highest bidder.
DiJulio points out that for those with no money or options, “there truly is nothing for them to lose” in dragging the eviction process out. When the judge finds in the landlord’s favor, they’ll award anywhere from $10,000 to 20,000, but it’s very hard for landlords to collect on these rulings.
This not-paying-rent thing sounds like a protracted nightmare that I hope to never experience, and I hope you don’t either—I think I’ve developed an ulcer just writing about it. But if you find yourself in this unfortunate circumstance, the eviction process might grant you up to two extra months, which might be enough time to luck out on a windfall like winning the lottery or help from a wealthy relative, or find somewhere else to stay. You’ll be on your state’s BOMA blacklist, but that’s better than being out on the street.
While it’s nice to know my credit score has yet to take a hit, I still feel it’s only a matter of time before I find myself in a similarly unfortunate scenario. The world is just an uncaring void of suffering like that, and systemic poverty will always find a way to keep you down, whether you’re mired in student loans or barely landing interviews for less-than-minimum-wage gigs. How much comfort can we really take in an untouched credit score? That shit’s made up, anyway.