After a rental eviction—after, that is, evicting a tenant who has breached her lease or overstayed her lease—the landlord has her property back. However, she may still have suffered economic damages: unpaid rent, amounts owed for unlawful holding over (i.e. money owed for staying in a rental premises when there is no longer a right to do so), and possible money owed for damage done to the premises by the tenant. Fortunately, there are ways for the landlord to recover.
Security deposits are designed to do two things. First, if the apartment suffers damage—beyond the usual wear-and-tear that’s inevitable whenever someone lives in a space—and the tenant does not make good the damage, the landlord can apply the security deposit to pay for repairs and replacements. Second, if there was any rent the tenant did not pay by the time her tenancy is over, the landlord can apply the security deposit against that unpaid rent. These are the only two reasons landlords may use the security deposit; landlords who take security deposits for improper reasons can find that they are now liable to their tenants. However, even with that, the security deposit is a convenient way for a landlord to recover amounts owed by a tenant after rental eviction.
Landlords can also sue tenants who’ve breached leases or caused them economic damages, the same as anyone who’s suffered a breach of contract, property damage, or other loss due to someone else’s improper actions can sue. In fact, it’s often necessary for landlords to sue, since most states limit the amount of security deposit for which a landlord can ask to the equivalent of 1 -2 months’ rent. That means that if the tenant failed to pay rent for several months; caused damage greater than the dollar amount of the deposit to the premises; or failed to pay rent and caused damage, the security deposit will be inadequate to fully compensate the landlord and make her whole.
Lawsuits can often be brought at the same time and in the same court as the eviction proceeding, which is very efficient for the landlord. Note that landlords need to check their state laws, though, since sometimes—especially if they are using some sort of streamlined or expedited eviction process, which some state allow—they may have to bring a separate lawsuit, rather than combining it with the eviction action.
Using the security deposit and suing the tenant is not an either/or situation: assuming the landlord’s losses are great enough, she can apply the deposit to them and then sue for any remaining balance.
If not just evicting a tenant, but also trying to recover for losses or damages, the help of an attorney is invaluable. The lawyer will be able to make sure all the requisite paperwork and all the necessary steps for both legal actions are done properly and on time. While it’s often possible for a landlord to handle an eviction herself, if an eviction is combined with a lawsuit, an expert should be brought in. Lawyers spend years going to law school and learning how to sue—it’s not something for one-the-job training by a landlord who has better things to do, such as managing her property or finding replacement tenants.