“How Long Can a Tenant Stay After the Lease Expires?” and Other Questions About Holdover Tenants

ByVladana Donevski
March 14,2022

If you have a detailed and signed lease with tenants who follow it to the t, you’ve hit the landlord jackpot. It’s not always that easy, however - many landlords have shaky relationships with their tenants and will often find themselves in situations where an unpleasant confrontation is unavoidable.

A tenant’s lease ending can be very frustrating for a landowner. There will be those unicorn tenants whose lease landlords will be happy to renew. More often, however, “How long can a tenant stay after the lease expires?” is just one of those questions a landlord might ask themselves with a tenant lease near expiring.

The best route is to contact your tenants even before the lease expires and discuss with them whether you would like to have them stay or figure out whether they’re planning on leaving. Starting the process early will give you the time to attract new tenants if your property becomes vacated.

But if it’s already too late for that, here are the answers to some common questions that might be keeping you and other landlords up at night.

What Happens When a Rental Lease Expires?

As mentioned before, this typically depends on your relationship with the tenant. If they were a good renter, you might consider renewing their lease. Otherwise, you could continue to accept rent from them without a lease agreement, which would be viewed as a tenancy at will - something we will discuss further below. Finally, you can start the eviction process, but that can be troublesome and time-consuming, so avoid it whenever possible.

Smart landlords typically set up a clause in the lease on what happens after it expires. It can stipulate that the lease is automatically renewed or switch the tenant to a month-to-month agreement. If no such agreement is established, tenants turn into “holdover tenants.”

What Is a Holdover Tenant?

By default, as soon as their lease expires, a tenant becomes a holdover tenant. However, this is far from optimal for landlords - you’ll want to avoid having holdover tenants and redefine their tenancy within some kind of agreement. Without a lease in place, there’s not much to protect either party if anything goes south. Ambiguous leases are also very unhelpful.

Some tenants will try to pay rent even after the lease expires, and you should avoid accepting that before putting the terms in writing. If you do take the rent, you expose yourself to several risks down the road. People whose lease expired and are still paying rent fall into two categories: Tenancy at sufferance and tenancy at will.

Tenancy at Will

This category entails paying rent and living on a property without a lease but with the landlord’s approval. It is a tricky position to be in for both landlord and tenant, as, just like the name suggests, either party can change their mind at any time. Tenants can stop paying rent and vacate the premises, and the landlord can tell them to leave by serving them an eviction notice with no warning.

This term is sometimes used interchangeably with a month-to-month lease, but renting month-to-month after the lease expires is still commonly regulated by some type of written agreement that states how long the state can last or the conditions under which the lease ends.

Tenancy at Sufferance

Tenancy at sufferance is a situation that often ends badly, as it means that the tenant pays rent and occupies the property against the landlord’s wishes. If you, as a landlord, don’t want the tenants to stay, but they are staying anyway, you shouldn’t accept rent, as it can complicate the situation if you are forced to start an eviction process.

After all, you shouldn’t have to accept “forever” as the answer to the “How long can a tenant stay after the lease expires?” If your tenants remain on your property against your wishes, you should refuse to accept money or extend the lease, thus making the tenant a trespasser on your property. This will help you prove that you don’t want them there if the situation escalates.

How can the situation escalate, you might wonder? The tenant might up and leave, leaving you with unpaid rent. While you can overcome this situation relatively easily by going to a small claims court or hiring a collection agency, there is a worse situation to be in - the one where the tenant refuses to leave after the lease expires.

How to Get Tenants to Vacate the Property

If a landlord doesn’t want the tenant to stay on the property any longer, there are two approaches to solving this issue. 

Offer Them Cash for Keys

Before starting an eviction, which on average costs $3,500, to get your property accessible for rent again, you might want to try the good old cash-for-keys solution. It may not be legal in your state, and it requires some negotiating, but it is undoubtedly the cheapest option in terms of both time and money. You would be offering your tenants cash to move out, and if they accept, you will be able to rent out your property to someone else sooner than you would with another solution.

If you are comfortable paying the tenant who stays after the lease expires to vacate the property, make sure to put the terms in writing and not pay up before your former tenants move all of their belongings. There have been many instances when personal belongings created problems for both tenants and landlords.

Starting the Eviction Process

While, as a landlord, you might be considering eviction first, we’re leaving it as a last resort. Each state has its laws on eviction, so it can be challenging to estimate whether eviction is the right step to take. Some state laws favor tenants, other landlords. It would be advisable to hire a lawyer, or at least inform yourself of the applicable eviction laws in your state. If your question is: “How long does it take to evict a holdover tenant?” the answer can range anywhere from a few weeks to a few months, and it depends on the tenants’ rights.

The first step is typically serving the tenants with an eviction notice, which they will hopefully abide by, and leave your property. If not, the landlord needs to promptly file an official complaint with their local rent court after the notice expires. After this, the eviction court hearing date will be set, and it would be best to have a lawyer accompany you there.

Eviction after a lease expires can be very unpleasant, which is why the better-safe-than-sorry approach is crucial when choosing tenants. It is always recommended that landlords perform a detailed background check on their prospective renters beforehand. Writing a clear lease that leaves nothing to chance and ensuring that your tenants are familiar with the terms before they move in are keys to a happy landlord-tenant relationship.

Summary

To sum things up, as a landlord whose lease with the tenant is soon to expire, you certainly have many options. You can try renewing their lease in one form or another, offering cash for keys so that they will move out faster, or try to evict the lease-expired tenant who won't leave.

The best way to handle any stressful situation with your tenants is to be proactive about things and prevent any unpleasantness. Screen your tenants, create a thorough lease that works for both parties, and approach any case involving your tenant with an open mind: Having an honest conversation with your tenant and finding a win-win solution together trumps any other option on this list.

FAQ
What happens if you stay past your lease?

Many tenants wonder: “What happens when your lease is up?” The laws on this topic can differ significantly depending on the state you live in. Hopefully, you can arrange a deal with your landlord that would accommodate you both by either renewing the lease or establishing a month-to-month contract. However, if it is not possible, it would be best to find another place to live and move out before the landlord starts the eviction process to avoid damaging your rental history reputation as a tenant, as eviction will come up on your background checks for at least seven years.

What happens if a tenant refuses to leave after the lease expires?

If they refuse to leave after their lease expires, the tenant can become a tenant at will or sufferance, or a trespasser. The difference lies in whether or not the landlord accepts further rent from the tenant.

If the landlord receives rent, eviction can become challenging. If the landlord refuses the rent, it puts them in a better position to force the tenant to vacate the property.

How do you politely ask a tenant to move out?

Typically, if they continue to pay you rent after the lease ends, it is acknowledged as month-to-month tenancy, and you as a landlord will have to serve them with a 30-day notice if you want them to leave. If your next question is: “How long can a tenant stay after the lease expires?” the answer typically depends on the agreement between the tenant and landlord.

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