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My tenant split without paying rent. What are my options?

by SuperiorInvest

Question: My tenant moved out of the Harlem condo unit I own, leaving behind significant debt and no forwarding address. He owes me $4,700 in unpaid rent and $15,000 in unpaid electric bills. At the beginning of the pandemic, she fell behind on the rent when she lost some work contracts and kept promising me that she would pay off the debt. But when the lease was up, she moved out and stopped communicating. Can I use her social security number to find her? How can I recover my losses?

AND: Your tenant’s debt should not grow as large as it has. Normally, a landlord would file a non-payment action against such a tenant in housing court. But during the height of the pandemic, housing court was closed and evictions halted, limiting your options.

“The timing of it was particularly terrible,” he said Sherwin Belkina Manhattan attorney who represents the landlord, adding that under typical circumstances, “it’s much better to nip it in the bud.”

Since the tenant has moved out, you can sue her for breach of contract, although this is a long and expensive process. To do this, you must first find her. If you can’t do this online or through a public records search, hire a private investigator. (However, you can’t use her Social Security number, which is sensitive information given to you in confidence for other purposes, to track her down.)

Once you find it, hire a lawyer to handle the lawsuit. Real estate attorneys typically bill on an hourly basis in cases like this, so your costs add up quickly. Sometimes serving a person with a complaint is enough to attract them to the table. Your former tenant might look at the situation and decide that it would be cheaper to settle the case than risk a lawsuit. Settlement wouldn’t make you whole, but it would bring about a quicker resolution.

Alternatively, you could hire a law firm that specializes in debt collection to collect unpaid rent, fees and damages on your behalf. Such firms work on a contingency basis and charge a percentage of any award you ultimately receive.

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