When a tenant leaves either their rental unit or personal property behind without explanation, landlords may find themselves in the awkward situation of needing to figure out the extent to which they have a right to access and potentially dispose of the property. While your options may be more straightforward in situations where a tenant abandons a rental and leaves it empty, it can be more confusing when you have to determine what to do with someone’s abandoned personal belongings. Having clear provisions in your lease or rental agreement about tenant absences, and checking your state laws relative to abandoned personal property can help you avoid misunderstandings with your tenants as well as legal liability.
When a Tenant Abandons the Rental Unit
If a tenant appears to have abandoned their rental and you are sure that they have truly moved out, you have the right to take possession of the property. Under these circumstances, it is advisable to obtain documentation from the tenant confirming that they have actually moved out so that you can re-rent the property without worrying that the old tenant will return and claim to have never intended to leave permanently.
One way to avoid uncertainty in this area is to include a provision in your lease or rental agreement that if a tenant will be absent for an extended period of time, they must notify you so that you are not wondering whether they have moved out or simply taken a long trip.
Leases or rental agreements may outline the exact number of days that a tenant can be absent without notice before the landlord will assume that they have abandoned the unit.
When a Tenant Leaves Personal Property Behind
If you are sure your tenant has moved out, but are left with a mountain of personal belongings after they leave, you may be tempted to throw them away or sell them, especially if the tenant owes you money. However, the circumstances under which the tenant left and the nature of the personal property can make a significant difference in terms of your rights and responsibilities relative to deciding what to do about those belongings.
If a tenant moves out with proper notice and on schedule, many states will give landlords the greatest amount of latitude in this situation regarding how to dispose of any personal property left behind. When there has been no eviction and the tenant has had a full opportunity to handle their belongings as they see fit, it is often considered less reasonable to place significant restrictions on what landlords can do with that property.
A landlord’s responsibilities in situations involving eviction can vary greatly depending on the jurisdiction. Evictions often involve law enforcement officers removing personal belongings from the rental unit and placing them outside. In some states landlords must then store the property, under the logic that the tenant has not had the opportunity to make arrangements to do so. Other states, however, do not view tenants in these circumstances as deserving any special treatment, and do not place any particularly burdensome requirements on landlords.
Sometimes tenants simply disappear, and leave behind large amounts of personal items. These can be the most complicated situations for landlords to handle in terms of disposing of those belongings, as there is a policy concern for protecting the property of tenants who are simply away and intend to return.
Landlords may have an obligation to notify tenants before disposing of or selling their abandoned property.
If the tenant owes you money, some states will allow you to sell their abandoned personal property to make up the difference. However, it is important to use caution, and be sure to comply with any notice requirements before selling the items. This not only gives the tenant the opportunity to reclaim the property, but if property such as a TV or other electronics has not been paid off, the lienholder may have that opportunity as well, which can help you avoid selling something the tenant didn’t actually own and then having to potentially pay the lienholder yourself.
If the tenant does not respond to your notice, in many states you can dispose of the property as you see fit after a certain amount of time. However, some states have very specific rules about what you may and may not do with the property or its proceeds, with some requiring a sale, some requiring you to remit the property to the state, and some placing limitations on how the proceeds can be used. Be sure to carefully follow all applicable rules in your jurisdiction, and to treat the property with care until it is sold, returned to the tenant, or otherwise disposed of.