Facing an eviction is one of those life events that nobody ever wants to experience.
But if it has happened to you, keep in mind that an eviction notice doesn’t always mean that you’re absolutely going to be leaving your home. It is, however, a sign — sometimes, a literal one on your front door — that you need to get your financial house in order, and fast.
So what should you do if you’re facing an eviction? Here are some steps you should take:
— Don’t act rashly; recognize that you have time to fix things.
— Talk to your landlord or call your mortgage lender.
— Learn the eviction laws of your state.
— Find a lawyer.
— Contact someone else.
— Invoke the force majeure clause.
— Consider bankruptcy.
Don’t Act Rashly; Recognize That You Have Time to Fix Things
Well, probably, and regardless, you do have rights. For instance, if your landlord locks you out of your place and puts your belongings in the yard, you probably have a great case for a lawsuit. An eviction notice doesn’t mean you have to pack up and move out of a place by sunset. It’s a notice telling you that you need to vacate the premises by a certain date, and if you don’t, a court order will need to be issued, and that takes time. So you have time to fix this. Maybe not enough time, of course.
[Read: 5 Reasons You’re Still Renting]
But your goal — if you think you can make up your rent or mortgage payments soon — is to buy yourself some time so you can catch up. Because can an eviction be reversed? In most cases, probably — as long as you pay back what you owe or at least get on a payment plan.
Talk to Your Landlord or Call Your Mortgage Lender
While one would think you already have talked to your landlord or lender by the time an eviction notice rolls in, if you haven’t, now is the time.
Communication is the best and most effective strategy if you’re trying to figure out how to fight an eviction. Ignoring the phone or mail does no good in this situation.
“The first and most important thing to do is to talk with your landlord. Even if you cannot make the full rent payment, some partial payment will go a long way in showing your good faith, and the landlord will be less likely to turn to eviction,” says Thao Le, assistant professor of real estate at Robinson College of Business at Georgia State University. “After all, landlords also prefer to avoid having to find new tenants, especially during this difficult time, and it’s always costly for them.”
Meanwhile, if it’s a mortgage lender and you haven’t called — call. Explain that you’ve had money issues. Who’s to say they won’t be able to work something out with you? You think you’re the first person they’ve encountered who fell behind on the mortgage?
And if you wind up with a court date, by all means, go.
If you don’t show up, Le says, “The court is more likely to order an immediate eviction.”
But if you are there to plead your case, you at least have a fighting chance of getting some sort of eviction hardship extension, where you can stay in your home longer.
Learn the Eviction Laws of Your State
Odds are, your landlord or banker has followed the letter of the law, and the eviction notice is legal. Still, what if your landlord or banker has jumped the gun and isn’t legally yet allowed to push you out of your home? That would be helpful to know. It’s also helpful to know if the landlord is within rights to push you out.
So you should start searching the internet for your state’s eviction laws (Nolo.com, a legal encyclopedia, is a particularly helpful site, and you’ll want to check out https://www.hud.gov/topics/rental_assistance/tenantrights, which has links to each state’s tenants’ rights).
[Read: How Much Rent Can I Afford?]
Find a Lawyer
You can do this while you’re brushing up on the eviction laws of your state and typing search engine phrases like “how to avoid eviction.”
Before you ignore this advice because of the assumed cost, check out the Legal Services Corporation’s website, lsc.gov, the single largest funder of civil legal aid for low-income Americans in the nation. In other words, if you’re going to be able to find a lawyer to work for cheap or free, it’ll be here.
Sure, maybe you can fight an eviction without an attorney, but you’ll be all the more likely to settle or win in court if you have one advising you.
Contact Someone Else
Le suggests going to the websites for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the National Low Income Housing Coalition and Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
“In addition, turning to your neighbors for help can be very effective. You should also reach out to your local communities via social media platforms such as Nextdoor, Facebook … to ask for help or for information about local programs and organizations that can help,” Le says.
In other words, getting an eviction notice may be terrifying and embarrassing. But right now, it’s all hands on deck as you search for eviction help, and chances are, you’re going to meet someone who can throw you a lifeline — or direct you to an organization that can help — if you tell people your situation. And you’ll probably end up meeting more people than you realize who have been in a similar spot.
Invoke the Force Majeure Clause
It sounds like some cool light saber move out of “Star Wars,” but according to David Rubenstein, founder of Rubenstein Business Law in Hamilton, New Jersey, “most leases and mortgages contain this seldom-used clause, which permits the parties to be relieved of performance for reasons outside your control.”
Rubenstein says, “Typically, these clauses would be invoked when there are acts of God, such as natural disasters like earthquakes, hurricanes or floods. However, a national pandemic such as COVID-19 certainly would qualify.”
How do you invoke the force majeure clause? “The key is to send written notice to the landlord or mortgage company informing them that you seek to invoke this clause to protect yourself. If you do not place them on notice, your ability to use the clause might be waived,” Rubenstein says.
It may or may not work, especially now that the pandemic has been with us for a while, but it’s definitely worth a try.
[See: 35 Ways to Save Money.]
Nobody wants that, but if you’re facing an eviction, these are dire times. And, sure, bankruptcy will hurt your credit, but if you’re late on your rent or mortgage, that ship has probably sailed.
Karra Kingston is a bankruptcy attorney who has clients in New York and New Jersey. She says that you may be able to stave off an eviction if you declare bankruptcy before you get an eviction notice.
Every state is different, which is why, again, you should familiarize yourself with your own state laws. But as Kingston explains it, “If the landlord hasn’t started the eviction process, a bankruptcy filing can stop the landlord from initiating an eviction action against the individual.”
Now, if you owe six months’ rent, and you’re thinking, “Phew, I can get out of paying that,” that is not necessarily the case.
But Kingston says that individuals who have money coming in — they’re just struggling and need a reset — may be able to enter into a Chapter 13 bankruptcy and repay their rent over a three-to-five-year plan.
“Individuals who enter into a Chapter 13 will be required to pay their rent arrears in their repayment plan while also paying their current monthly rent payments. This is a powerful tool for people who can afford it,” she says.
And if you have received an eviction notice? You still may want to consider bankruptcy, according to Kingston.
“When an individual files bankruptcy, an automatic stay goes into place and the automatic stay stops creditors from coming after them. However, once a judgment is in place, the automatic stay may be lifted, and the landlord can evict the individual. Thus, filing for bankruptcy may just buy them a little more time,” she says.
But a little more time may be all you need.
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