Out in the Cold: The Laws (and Ethics) of Evicting Tenants in Winter

Out in the Cold: The Laws (and Ethics) of Evicting Tenants in Winter

Every winter, landlords of problem tenants across Canada face a difficult predicament. Do you boot your delinquent renter in the middle of the harshest season or do you try and make it work through the winter? The situation raises legal, ethical and moral dilemmas, to say the least.

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Kicking someone out into inclement weather may not make you feel like a very good person. On the other hand, you might already be giving them the benefit of the doubt and more leeway than you can afford. There are a lot of factors to think about if you’re considering eviction in the middle of winter. If you find yourself in this position, you need to ask yourself some very pointed questions.

What are the legalities of winter eviction?

The first question to ask yourself is whether or not it’s legal to terminate a lease in the middle of winter. According to the Residential Tenancies Act (RTA), it is. You can evict a delinquent tenant during winter for the same reasons as at any other point during the year. There’s nothing in the legislature that condones evictions due to weather conditions.

With winter eviction perfectly legal regardless of weather, it’s important to remember the due process. You still need to provide written notice (Notice to Terminate) with the appropriate number of days. And, if your tenant doesn’t vacate in that time, you’ll need to file an application (Application to Terminate a Tenancy) with the Landlord and Tenant Board and serve it to the tenant to have them removed. While due process is always important to follow, it’s even more crucial in the winter. Delinquent tenants will try to find loopholes that allow them to stay during the winter months, rather than get kicked out into the cold! Even one gap in the process could derail the eviction. Document everything and keep good records.

There are also a few things you should never do during the eviction process—especially not in winter. Changing locks without notice, shutting off utilities or having someone remove your tenant’s belongings from the property can all land you in court. These things constitute an illegal eviction and carry hefty fines.

Remember, while eviction is in process, you’re still expected to abide by the terms of the lease, which includes providing a safe living space.

What ethical dilemma does winter eviction present?

Just because you can evict a tenant in the middle of winter doesn’t mean you’ll feel good about it. You’ll probably feel pretty bad—worse if there’s heaps of snow and subzero gusts. It’s an ethical dilemma for many real estate investors.

On one hand, you might have a tenant with no regard. They trash the property, fail to pay rent on time (if ever) and treat you, their landlord, like garbage. Your cash flow suffers and you’re constantly filled with anxiety. You want them out as soon as possible. On the other hand, you feel bad about kicking someone out into an uncertain situation, where they might not have a roof over their head. Winter is unforgiving and you’re not sure if they’ll land on their feet or wind up without a home.

Every situation is different, too. You might not feel bad about kicking out your unruly tenant… but you might feel horrible kicking out a single mom who’s several months behind on rent. Evicting your down-on-their-luck tenant and bringing in a new person might reinfuse $1,000 into your monthly cash flow; however, you might not necessarily be hurting for that money.

It’s up to every investor to decide how to approach the ethical side of their situation. Try to look at it from a neutral view wherever possible. Remember that a lease is a contract—an agreement by two parties. You agree to provide a dwelling and your tenant agrees to compensate you for it. If they’re unable to hold up their end of the bargain, it causes them to terminate the contract. You’re not a bad person for it, and if it happens to become an issue during the winter months, it’s a circumstantial component you simply can’t control.

Is it morally right to evict in the winter?

If you’ve navigated the legal and ethical dilemmas of winter eviction, you still have to face the moral quandary it presents. While ethics are based on situations—the unruly tenant vs. the single mother—morals are your personal beliefs. You’ll have to ask yourself if you believe it’s moral to evict someone in the dead of winter and if you can justify it to yourself.

For many investors, morals are rooted in your investing approach. It comes down to determining if you’re willing to lose out on your investment for a time or if that investment comes first. Will you feel better about remedying a bad tenant and reclaiming your rightful cash flow, even if that means kicking someone out into the cold? Or would you feel better waiting out the weather and giving someone the boot under better conditions?

For some, their investment is the bottom line. For others, empathy takes priority. There is no wrong answer, and you’re the one who has to live with the decision you make.

What should you do?

In some cases, eviction is the clear-cut choice. Tenants damaging your property or engaging in illicit activities, for example, merit eviction. Or, if you’ve overextended yourself to the point where you need that income, the decision may be made for you. You have to do what you have to do. Sometimes, however, the decision isn’t so plain. Evicting someone who is down-on-their-luck or has hit hard times is never easy.

If you’re truly at a loss for what to do about a problem tenant and a potential winter eviction, the best thing you can do is work through it aloud. Talk with an investor friend or your mentor, or even ask your spouse or family member. Everyone will have their own opinion, and hearing them can help you reach your conclusions. It’s better than ping-ponging back and forth between the angel and the devil on your shoulders.

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