Can I Sue in Small Claims Court for Unpaid Rent?

You may be able to recover unpaid rent in small claims court.
You may be able to recover unpaid rent in small claims court. (Image: Jupiterimages/ Images)

The small claims court handles cases that involve small monetary amounts that make it not worthwhile to use the regular court. You may be able use the small claims court to sue your tenant and recover unpaid rent. However, before taking legal action, you should first explore other avenues of getting the unpaid rent amount.


If your tenant fails to pay rent, you can retain some or all of his security deposit and add any unpaid late fees, utility charges and other charges as outlined in the lease agreement. If the deposit amount is insufficient to cover the unpaid rent, you may be able to sue the tenant for the remaining amount of unpaid rent in small claims court. Before filing a claim with the small claims court, you may have to first demand the tenant to pay the balance in writing. If he doesn't respond, you can take legal action.

Month-to-Month Lease

The type of lease that you have with the tenant affects your case. If the lease is month-to-month, you can sue for the balance of the rent if the tenant provides insufficient notice before moving out. For example, if the notice period is 30 days and the tenant provides notice on the 20th of the month, the tenancy ends only on the 20th of the next month. If the tenant stays in the property after the tenancy ends, you can deduct holdover rent for each extra day.

Fixed-Term Lease

If a tenant moves out before a fixed-term lease ends, you may be able to sue him for breaking the lease. This means that you may be able to get the remaining rent amount for the rest of the lease term, minus any portion of the amount that you can reasonably recover by renting the property to a new tenant. You may also sue for advertising expenses you spend for finding a new tenant and charges for repairs and cleaning.

Other Considerations

Every state has a limit for the amount you can claim in the small claims court. If the balance of the unpaid rent exceeds this amount, you may benefit from reducing the amount to avoid having to pay the expense of going to a formal court. Before filing your claim, you need to find the tenant's new address to send legal papers. If you don't know this address, you may find it by filing a skip-trace form at the post office.

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