Tenants sometimes leave items behind when they move out of a rental property, especially when their departure is involuntary or unexpected. For example, if you are evicted and wait for the sheriff to get your belongings for you, you face a real risk of losing something in the process. What happens to things that you leave behind? This depends on how much objective value they have. If something is clearly trash or has no value, the landlord can discard it without any consequences. If an item does have some value, on the other hand, the landlord may need to follow certain requirements before they can dispose of it.
The rules below do not apply to motor vehicles, which will usually be towed by the police, or to fixtures, which belong to the landlord as the owner of the property.
Leaving Behind Property in a Planned Move
Tenants who leave as planned usually have the opportunity to look through their belongings and decide whether to pack them or leave them behind. A landlord thus has discretion in most states to dispose of this type of abandoned property as they see fit.
Leaving Behind Property Without a Planned Move
When tenants disappear without notice and leave belongings behind them, the landlord may need to store the property or try to locate the tenant. More often than not, the tenant simply has gone on an extended trip and will eventually return. This makes it important to preserve their property in the meantime.
Leaving Behind Property in an Eviction
Since tenants often are evicted on relatively short notice, they may have little time to collect and pack their belongings. In some states, landlords need to store abandoned property temporarily until they can locate the tenant and determine whether to sell or dispose of the belongings. Other states take the opposite approach, believing that tenants who have been evicted do not deserve special protections.
Using Abandoned Property to Account for Back Rent
If a tenant leaves a property with some of the rent still unpaid, the landlord may be able to keep or sell abandoned belongings to compensate for the owed money. (This is known as an automatic lien.) States that permit automatic liens may exempt some types of belongings from them, such as items related to shelter or health. Other states do not permit automatic liens at all and treat the issue of back rent separately from abandoned belongings.
If your state does not allow automatic liens, and the landlord has improperly kept or sold your property as compensation for back rent, you can sue them for the value of the property in small claims court.
Notice Requirements for Disposing of Property
In some states, a landlord must give a tenant written notice that they are holding abandoned property for them, and they must allow a certain period of time to reclaim it. The notice may include a description of the property, its value, the deadline for reclaiming it, where to reclaim it, and what will happen if it is not reclaimed. You probably will need to pay storage fees to the landlord. Your state may allow the landlord to dispose of the property as they wish if you do not respond by the deadline, or the landlord may need to give the property to the state or sell it at a public auction. What the landlord can do with the property may depend on its value and how it compares to the cost of storing or selling it.
Damage or Loss of Property
If you reclaim your property from the landlord in a damaged condition, you may be able to sue the landlord for the damage if it resulted from their negligence. Landlords are not liable for damage that was not foreseeable under the circumstances. Most of the time, you will bring this claim in small claims court.
If the landlord failed to follow proper procedures, and this resulted in the loss of your property, you may be able to sue the landlord for the value of your belongings, but not necessarily. The outcome will depend on state law, which varies widely in this area.