A tenant moving out of your property can be relatively time-consuming and stressful even in the best circumstances. It can take a lot of work to complete all the move-out procedures, clean & repair the unit, re-list the rental, and find and screen potential tenants.
When a tenant leaves their belongings in the unit, it can cause even more work and stress than you were expecting. It can be tempting to carry everything out to the dumpsters and move on with the long list of tasks you need to do before you can get a new renter.
What you may not know is that there are laws that govern how landlords must handle property that the tenant leaves behind. Before you do anything with the tenant’s abandoned property make sure to check your state and local laws so that you don’t end up in trouble down the road.
Even if you aren’t currently dealing with this problem, it’s important for you to be familiar with the laws surrounding this complex issue so that you don’t act without thinking in the future and end up in expensive legal trouble.
Here are some basic guidelines for how to deal with property that a tenant left behind in your rental unit. But remember that every area has different laws, so it is critical that you are familiar with your local laws before doing ANYTHING with the tenant’s belongings.
Consider Why the Tenant Left
- Lease Ended: most states allow the landlord to dispose of anything that a tenant left behind once the lease term has ended
- Termination of Lease by Landlord: if the tenant’s lease was terminated or the lease period shortened by the landlord, most states allow you to dispose of anything left behind once the termination date passes as long as the tenant moved out on time
- Eviction or Tenant Leaves without Notice: in these cases, you may be responsible for making sure that the tenant gets any property that they left behind
If a tenant leaves without notice, they may still have rights to property left behind, so you always need to check local laws to determine your responsibility.
Take an Inventory
Many states will require the landlord, property owner, or property manager give the tenant legal notice before disposing of their abandoned belongings. In order to effectively give this notice, you need to document everything that the tenant left behind.
Important: We highly recommend bringing a third party with you when inventorying and moving the belongings to protect yourself from any fraudulent damage charges.
Include the estimated value of the property and images of each item left in your inventory. You will need to have this for legal purposes and also to send to the tenant when you send them a notice about pickup.
In the event that any potentially valuable property is left behind (this can include locked items which you should not open), it may be best to get a lawyer involved just to make sure that you are handling the situation and the property correctly.
There are 2 types of items that are handled differently than other abandoned items: motor vehicles and property fixtures. If a tenant leaves any type of motor vehicle on the property, this is considered an abandoned vehicle and you should contact the local police department to deal with it. If a tenant has made modifications to the property (i.e. new light fixtures, built-ins), these become your property when they move out.
Give the Tenant Notice
Most states require that you send a notice to the tenant before you are able to dispose of any of the abandoned property.
You should make a reasonable effort to get in contact with the tenant. Send certified mail with a delivery receipt or have the notice delivered by hand. Depending on your local laws, you may be required to attempt to deliver the notice to the tenant a certain number of times.
There are online templates that can help you write the notice, but you should be sure to include the following:
- Inventory of all items (take and include photos of everything)
- Estimated value of each item
- Location where the property will be held until they come to pick it up
- Deadline for retrieval (this will be mainly dictated by state and local laws)
- Charge for storing the property
- What will happen to their things if they don’t pick them up during the retrieval period
Item Care and Storage
Obvious trash can usually be removed without checking with the tenant or following any procedures. This would include bags of garbage, expired perishable food, and other items that are clearly garbage. Any expenses incurred for cleaning trash from the unit can be deducted from the tenant’s security deposit.
For all other abandoned property (all of the items that you have already inventoried!), you are responsible for storing the tenant’s belongings safely for the retrieval period. You are responsible for this property during the retrieval period until they pick it up, so you want to make sure that nothing gets damaged.
It is not required that property be kept in the unit, but it must be kept somewhere secure until the tenant has the opportunity to pick it up. When you’re moving the tenant’s belongings, bring a neutral third party with you to help protect yourself from any potential damage claims.
Remove the Items
Hopefully, the tenant will claim the property and make arrangements with you to come pick it up. State and local laws will dictate how quickly you are required to make the items available for pickup. Before the tenant comes to pick up their property, make sure you know the costs of storing and moving the belongings so that you can make sure that you are paid before you give them access to their stuff.
If the tenant doesn’t claim the property in the retrieval period, be sure to check local laws before you start property disposal. Some areas may require that all of the abandoned items be turned over to the state, while others may allow you to do as you wish with all of the property that was left behind.
How to Avoid This Situation
- Add a clause about abandoned property in your rental agreement. This may include information about a disposal fee for removing trash and other items from the property after the tenant moves out, and can also include information about what is considered abandoned property and how it will be handled.
- Send a move out notice to tenants with all move-out requirements and a reminder to take everything with them when they leave. Sometimes something as simple as this is all it takes to encourage a tenant to take all their things with them.
Hiring a property manager can help you to deal with these issues in a professional and painless way. Property managers are experienced in dealing with these situations, are familiar with their local laws, and will handle the tedious work associated with abandoned items for you.