Fortunately, most tenancies go along without consequence. But every now and again a landlord faces the challenge of a tenant who leaves behind personal property.
Whether it’s the simple inconvenience of finding leftover food in the refrigerator, or the heartbreak of discovering a malnourished animal, a landlord needs to have a strategy in place for dealing with abandoned property.
Unfortunately, deciphering the rules can be a daunting task, especially where laws vary widely from one jurisdiction to the next.
One way to successfully navigate through this challenge is to break the problem down into steps:
Find out what the standard is in your jurisdiction for determining if the property the tenant left behind is considered abandoned.
Some jurisdictions have passed statutes which specifically define the situations where a landlord can presume it is.
That determination may depend entirely on whether the rental property has been abandoned.
In an easy case, the tenant has informed the landlord they are leaving, or the lease has expired, the tenant is no longer paying rent, and does not appear to be on the premises.
In other cases, it’s not as clear. In some areas, the failure to pay rent alone may not be enough. In the absence of written rules, the landlord must play detective and look for clues:
Are there signs of life in the rental – perishable food, bedding, newspaper or mail delivery?
Has the tenant transferred the utilities?
Are they still at the same job?
Have they been in touch with emergency contacts listed in the rental application?
Check your rules for a requirement to give notice to the tenant that you are going to take possession of their property.
Nearly every jurisdiction has some sort of requirement for notice regarding abandoned property. Many require advance notice before taking possession of the property, while others require notice before disposing of the property. The length of notice may be from five to 30 days, depending upon the area where the rental property is located.
Some rules are quite specific about the content of the notice and how it is to be delivered.
A landlord who violates these rules will likely be subject to a payment of damages. A tenant may raise this issue and ask for an offset when the landlord later tries to collect tenant debt.
Find out whether your jurisdiction requires a landlord to store the property. The majority do; however, the landlord is allowed to charge the tenant for the storage and moving costs. There may be a requirement to inventory the items. Once the notice period has expired, most jurisdictions allow landlords to simply dispose of the property.
A few jurisdictions allow a landlord to place the property “on the curb”, although that is seldom practical in the literal sense because landlords can’t block doorways, sidewalks or roadways, trash collectors charge fines for picking up hard-to-handle items, and municipalities may levy fines for littering.
Besides, how can a landlord show the rental property to prospective tenants with trash on the lawn?
Abandoned pets are a special circumstance. The tenant may have committed a crime by leaving behind a pet without adequate care. It is always a good idea to contact your local law enforcement authority and ask for guidance before you take action where animals are concerned.
In some areas, valuable items can be auctioned and the proceeds applied to past due rent. It is rare for the tenant to leave valuables, and an auction is usually an impractical step, as the costs of accounting and sale can easily outweigh the gains.
Take photographs of the tenant’s items and the appearance of the rental property before you remove them in case you have to defend your actions. Also, retain receipts for any costs associated with handling the abandoned property.
Editor’s Note: When my teenage brother was moving from his first apartment, his roommate’s pet snake escaped from its cage. They didn’t tell the landlord. (You’ll never guess where it showed up!) What’s the strangest thing your tenant left behind?
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The information provided in this post in not intended to be construed as legal advice, nor should it be considered a substitute for obtaining individual legal counsel or consulting your local, state, federal or provincial tenancy laws.