Cash for keys is a controversial process debated often in landlord circles, but something that is loved and often used. Cash for keys is the strategy of giving tenants money to leave the rental property, avoiding the eviction process altogether. However, before throwing money at a renter, there are some points for a homeowner to consider.

Cash for keys is a simple transaction that avoids the legal system and doesn’t explicitly force a tenant to leave. Instead, the tenant agrees to voluntarily leave in exchange for money. The landlord hands them the cash; they hand over the keys, sign a release, remove their stuff, and go on their way.

The theory behind cash for keys is simple: Giving the tenant money to leave is cheaper than going through the eviction process. In brief, eviction requires the homeowner to sue the tenant, go to court, and (hopefully) regain possession of their property through a judgment.

Think about it: Evicting a tenant will likely take a month or longer, depending on the state. It could cost several thousand dollars in legal fees to do so, on top of the lost rent for at least a month, maybe two, or more. Then, the landlord has to deal with the cleanup of a tenant who was just evicted, which is never pretty. All in all, a normal eviction could cost around $5,000 or more. But what if the landlord could just offer the tenant $500 to leave the rental property in good condition? Exactly. That’s cash for keys.

Being a landlord can be fun—if you do it right

No matter how great you are at finding good rental property deals, you could lose everything if you don’t manage your properties correctly. Being a landlord doesn’t have to mean middle-of-the-night phone calls, costly evictions, or daily frustrations with ungrateful tenants.

7 principles to follow when using cash for keys

Of course, $500 is just an example. Maybe the landlord will want to give more. Maybe less. It will depend on the unit, the renter, and the motivation—and there may be some negotiation required for successful cash for keys deal. However, $500 is usually enough to encourage a delinquent tenant to leave, especially if they’re facing eviction. For those who want to try cash for keys, the following seven principles should be followed.

1. Explain to the tenant in detail what they need to do

Tell them that the unit must be in move-in ready condition when they leave, so they have to clean it and take care of any repairs. This saves in cleanup costs and reduces the chance that the tenant will damage the property on the way out.

2. Give the tenant a specific date they need to move out

Typically, a landlord will not give any more than four days to move. The point of cash for keys is to get them out of the property quickly.

3. Give a pay or vacate notice anyway

This is typically the first step in the eviction process. Just in case the tenant doesn’t leave, the landlord will not have lost much time.

4. Meet with the tenant

Next, the landlord has to meet the tenant at the property and verify that the unit is, indeed, “broom clean.” To be safe, the landlord should have someone accompany them.

5. Inspect the property

Make sure the tenant lived up to their end of the bargain. The home should be cleaned out and in good shape. If not, the property owner has to show the tenant what needs to be done and has to set a time when to come back. Never give the tenant money until they are 100% out and have handed over the key.

6. Sign the paperwork

Have the renter sign a simple document that relinquishes their tenancy at the property. This is protection in case they later say the landlord changed the locks on them or that they did not really move out. The tenant has to sign and date the document.

7. Hand over the cash

If the tenant has held up their part of the deal, the landlord can hand over the money and thank them for a positive transition. Then the locks have to be changed immediately. If there is a security deposit, a landlord may deduct past due rent but still needs to provide an itemized list of deductions. Make sure to check the state’s law on how to deal with the security deposit.

The benefits of cash for keys

Obviously, getting non-paying occupants out of your property with the least hassle possible is the biggest reason to offer cash for keys. But here are some other benefits of executing this agreement.

Faster moves

Obviously, avoiding the eviction process saves time and money. And because the renter has to clean and fix up the rental property before they receive the cash, it also speeds up the process of them moving out.

Better numbers

Landlords should compute the true costs of a non-paying tenant—eviction and legal fees, mortgage payments, taxes, insurance, and utility fees—which can easily amount to thousands of dollars. And those costs do not even include the turnover expense once the tenant finally moves out. Yes, you may have to pay attorney fees to draw up a simple agreement. But that’s minimal compared to the amount of money you’ll shell out for eviction.

This is an investment into the next 12 months of cash flow. Landlords have to figure out the return on a $1,000 or $2,000 cash incentive to the renter versus the actual costs over the time it will take to get the property back. A non-paying tenant today may be in the rental property for months and months if a landlord has to wait for the courts to solve the problem.

Control of the outcome

The main selling point of cash for keys is that the landlord can control the outcome. They will know when the tenant will leave, can somewhat control the condition the tenant turns the property back over in, and can control the timeline. A non-paying tenant can leave any day with anything they want in the house and without a care of the condition of the property.

It may also benefit the tenant

In many cases, the cash given to the tenant may provide them with a fresh start. For tenants down on their luck, these funds can help them start over, allowing them to avoid getting their name dragged through the mud in a long, drawn-out legal case. Also, the tenant does not end up with an eviction on their record, and they will have a spotless tenant record. This is where landlords can still have empathy and create a win-win situation for both parties.

Obstacles to eviction

Let’s explore the traditional route of eviction so you can better weigh your options and decide of a cash for keys agreement suits you. Know that there are obstacles no matter what part of the country the rental property is located in. Here are some common hurdles:

  • Delivering notice: Landlords are required to hand-deliver the five-day notice (it may be a three-day notice in some states). A process server can do this for $75–$100. The process server will trace the renter’s whereabouts to hand-deliver the notice to them when it is appropriate.
  • Filing costs: The US average for court filing of eviction is around $50. This isn’t so much a hurdle but one of the true expenses of doing business.
  • Serving the suit: Once filed, the tenant must be served with the lawsuit. This process can take up to an additional two weeks of time.
  • Trial extensions: Even if the tenant has been properly served and shows up to court, the tenant can ask for a continuance or request a jury trial. If they do not show up to court, the tenant has seven days to file a request for an extension, bringing the case back to court in another two to three weeks. The options available to the tenant can add weeks, if not months, to the process.
  • Landlord possession: If the process does go smoothly and the judge grants possession to the landlord, there is more time added here. Once the process is past all the hurdles thus far, the judge will see the tenant is not following the lease and grant the landlord possession at some point in the next 14–30 days.
  • Tenant removal: The likelihood that the tenant will leave on their own is slim. This forces the landlord to file more paperwork, pay additional fees, and wait for local law enforcement to come to the rental property. This can take anywhere from a couple of days to months for the police to come and evict the tenant.

Is cash for keys the right choice?

Yes, cash for keys feels so “un-American,” like the bad guy is getting away with the crime. Some landlords flat-out refuse to even consider this idea because it feels so wrong. But remember, cash for keys isn’t personal—it’s business!

That said, cash for keys doesn’t always work. Some renters will refuse it. Some tenants will ignore it. Sometimes the homeowner will not want to try it. In that case, the only recourse is the eviction process.