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What Is Back Rent?

By M. Lupica
Updated: May 16, 2024

Collecting rent is very often the biggest cause of friction between a tenant and landlord. In the event that the tenant does not pay rent, and the amount owed builds up, this is called “back rent.” Collecting back rent is typically not easy for a landlord because the tenant’s inability to pay is generally what lead to the accrual of rent in the first place. While the ultimate goal of the landlord in a situation such as this should be to get the tenant to pay his or her rent without spending money and time going through the legal process, there are remedies at a landlord’s disposal to compel payment from his or her delinquent tenant.

If a tenant has avoided paying the rent owed to the landlord and back rent has accrued, a landlord may elect to file a claim for the rent owed. This is a largely symbolic gesture as it simply results in the court ordering the delinquent tenant to pay the rent. However, there are no real repercussions, and if the delinquent tenant does not have the money to pay the rent anyway, it is not going to get the result the landlord is looking for.

The option that may be more persuasive for a tenant to pay his or her back rent to the landlord is to bring an unlawful detainer lawsuit, also known as an action for eviction. The action for eviction will terminate the remaining lease on the grounds that the tenant has not paid the rent and will lose his or her right to remain on the property. With the threat of being removed from the residence now behind the landlord, the delinquent tenant now may feel more compelled to work out and comply with a payment plan for the rent. If the eviction goes through, then the tenant will have a certain period of time to vacate the premises before a sheriff comes to make sure that he or she does so.

One mistake that landlords who are owed back rent often make is to employ what are called “self help” methods of punishing the delinquent tenant. For example, a landlord may change the locks while the tenant is at work for the day in order to compel him or her to pay, or a landlord might show up at the residence and take something of value that belongs to the tenant as compensation. Nearly every jurisdiction has laws prohibiting these self help methods as a matter of public policy.

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