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If check isn't in mail on time, tenants face consequences

September 21, 2003|H. May Spitz | Special to The Times

Paying the rent on time is a bread-and-butter basic fact of tenant life. But when is it really due? What happens when it's paid late?

In California, due dates boil down to what is stated in the rental agreement. The amount of rent and when it should be paid is usually a front-page item.

If you violate the written agreement you could be in hot water. Paying more than three days late from the due date can result in a "Three Day Notice to Pay Rent or Quit." Once that notice is served, the rent must be paid within three days or formal eviction may be the next course of action. Always get immediate legal advice if served a document.

With late rent, give a date you expect to fulfill your obligation, especially if there has been a change in ownership. Every owner has a different threshold of tolerance. Don't step over it or you may get tossed out, since late rent is "just cause" for eviction.

Just cause is defined as "breaching a material factor in the lease." While definitions may vary between cities with rent control regulations, nonpayment of rent is universally a just cause for being evicted.

The process begins with the official Three Day Notice to Pay Rent or Quit. Three business days are granted to the tenant to pay the rent as stated in the actual notice. The correct and valid amount, no fees included, should be listed.

By law, the notice must state an exact address for mailing or the location and hours the rent can be brought over. The clock starts ticking the day after the notice is served (usually by being posted on the unit's front door, plus mailed).

Eviction based on nonpayment of rent is the most common reason evictions are filed, so take a Three Day Notice seriously. If you pay your rent with cash or money order, ask for a signed and dated receipt. You have a legal right to receive a written receipt, no matter how the rent is paid.

What if you know you're going to be late with the rent? Don't play hide and seek. Give the landlord a call and openly admit the rent will be delayed. Work out an arrangement in writing, signed by landlord and tenant.

Offering to write a check for a partial payment often is more appealing to landlords than receiving nothing at all.

Late fees charged to tenants are legal as long as they are within limits. State Civil Code Section 1719(a) allows a late fee to be charged but only if the rental agreement contains the provision. The actual amount charged and the effective date must be listed.

Late fees charged must be reasonably related to the actual cost the landlord or manager incurs as a result of the late payment. Late fees that are exorbitant are not valid.

Bounced checks can carry a penalty, but it also must be within reason. Note that the "bad check" law spelled out in the Civil Code applies to rents, with service charge limits not to exceed $25 for the first check passed and $35 thereafter.

Rent should be a priority, since it provides a place to call home.

Take any notice or form received seriously. Read the document fully, take immediate action to reply and get legal advice for any questions.

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