What to Do When Your Property is Left Behind by a Tenant…

You’ll have to follow due process and possibly get the local government involved depending on the total value of the abandoned property. Simply put, you’ll need to inventory the belongings, safely store them, and then either return, sell, keep, donate, or trash them after a certain amount of time. It can be time-consuming and an expensive hassle. Check the condition of your property and plan to get the unit ready for a new tenant. If repairs are needed, make note of them and talk to the previous tenant about the damages. The following are some suggestions about a solution to this problem and how to prevent it from happening again.

Why Has The Tenant Left?

Every landlord’s goal is to have his/her rental property under lease and occupied by tenants who will not only pay their rent on time but who will properly use and maintain the property. After all, the property is an investment of both time and money by the landlord. For example, a tenant may take an extended vacation for the holidays or even abandon the property altogether.

Depending on why the tenant left, there are certain guidelines you must follow:

  • The lease ended and they told you they were leaving. You have the most flexibility if the property is left behind and the tenant left of their own accord.
  • If you have given the tenant a termination notice according to due process, you will have flexibility if they leave belongings. It will be your choice of how you want to depose the property.
  • After an Eviction: Even if it looks like trash to you, those items might hold value to someone else. If an evicted tenant left possessions behind, you as a landlord have some responsibilities to ensure that the tenant has a fair chance to retrieve said belongings before you dispose of them. Local laws will determine what you are entitled to sell to get compensation for unpaid rent.
  • When tenants disappear without notice and leave belongings behind them, the landlord may need to store the property or try to locate the tenant. Tenants still have rights to the property left on site and you cannot withhold personal property to get rent paid. You need to get acquainted with your state’s legislation about the removal of their possessions.

Surveying The Tenant’s Property Left Behind

Before you remove the tenant’s abandoned belongs, you should know which items are theirs. Tenant property is defined as any personal possessions moved into the rental unit. Per the lease, the tenant is required to restore the property to its original condition and that means moving out their personal property. The landlord has the right to remove any possessions of a tenant who has voluntarily moved out and he can put those possessions in storage. The landlord must wait 18 days to dispose of the belongings. You may assume if a tenant leaves belongings behind after vacating the property that they do not want the property any longer. You are only in the clear if your lease agreement explicitly states what happens to abandoned property. Or that the tenant has given you written confirmation that he will not be returning.

Exceptions To Abandoned Property Laws

State rules on the abandoned property do not apply to the following types of property:

Fixtures: When an item is affixed more or less permanently to the wall, such as built-in bookshelves, it is called a “fixture.” Absent a written agreement between the landlord and tenant (such as a lease clause specifically addressing fixtures and improvements), fixtures installed by a tenant become a part of the premises. Fixtures belong to the landlord and do not have to be returned to the tenant.

Motor vehicles: Occasionally, a departing tenant will leave an inoperable or “junker” automobile in the parking lot or garage. Motor vehicles are often a special category of personal property to which state rules on the abandoned property don’t apply. When a tenant leaves a car or other vehicle behind, the landlord should call the local police, giving the vehicle’s license plate number, make, and model, and indicate where it’s parked. The police will probably arrange to have it towed after determining that it is abandoned.

How To Deal With Personal Property?

You will need an inventory of the abandoned belongings, safely store them, and then after the proper state law of storing them, you can either, sell, keep, donate, or trash them.

  • Storing: You can remove the property from the unit. You do need to place the belongings in a safe place. Have a witness watch you move the items to a secure place. You can keep a list of all expenses so you can be reimbursed if the tenant comes back to claim the property.
  • Contact the tenant: Part of your due diligence is to try to get in touch either with the tenant, their cosigner, or the emergency contact’s address. When you mail a notice of the abandoned property get a first class return receipt. Be sure and include the inventory of the property, the deadline for claiming the property, where you have stored the property, the charge for the storage, and information about what you will do with the property if the tenant does not respond. (sell, auction, donate, keep, throw away, etc…)
  • If the tenant claims the property: Make the belongings available for the tenant to retrieve at a reasonable time and place. Have a bill for the cost of removal and storage. Make sure you are reimbursed before the tenant retrieves their possessions or deduct from the security deposit if that is due. If the tenant does not claim the property, check with your state regulation about the time frame and sell the property or keep the property, if you so choose.

Some Preventive Measures You Should Take So None Of This Hassle Happens Again

  • Screen tenants: Conduct a background and credit check. Contact previous landlords for references. If you decline the application, be sure you tell them why they were declined to keep the tenant selection process fair.
  • Include an abandoned property clause in your lease: This would release you from much of this property left obligation, if you ask them to waive rights outlined by the state laws. Include requirements that they return the rental to the same condition as it was in when they moved in (which was empty). In the clause, also include what will happen if they leave the unit and neglect to take their belongings. Note how long you will store it, the fee for moving and storage of the belongings, and what you would do with the property if it goes unclaimed.
  • Create a move-out checklist: A good practice for landlords when a lease is about to expire is to send a move-out checklist to tenants. The list should reiterate that in the lease the tenant is to restore the property to its original condition. You can customize your list to be specific to your property. Consider including these tasks:
  1. Cleaning requirements
  2. Change of details for utilities
  3. Repainting walls to the same color as they were upon move-in
  4. Condition of property
  5. Remove your belongings
  6. Lock up
  7. Inform the bank
  8. Disposal of all trash
  9. Deposit return

Withholding Security

The general rule is that a landlord or property manager can only withhold money from the deposit for actual damages, whether they are material or financial. This means that you can deduct money if the tenant owes you past due rent or fees or if they caused damages beyond normal wear and tear. You can withhold the security deposit for the storage and removal of abandoned property.

Follow the process for abandoned property and you will dodge legal disputes. Additionally, take preventative action to ensure this kind of situation does not happen to you as a property manager or property owner.

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