What to Do When Your Tenant Disappears

by Chris on July 2, 2018

Tenants who suddenly vanish — whether to avoid an eviction or because they simply wanted to move on — create a plethora of problems for landlords.

A lease agreement passes the right of possession of the property to the tenant. That’s a legal right. The landlord cannot take that away from a tenant unless the landlord meets the legal standards for terminating the tenancy. In this sense, abandonment is as much a legal hassle as eviction — possibly worse.

This is all the more frustrating when it appears obvious that the tenant has gone and the property is sitting vacant.

The first indication most landlords receive that the property is abandoned is the tenant’s failure to pay rent. Other reasons for concern may be complaints from neighbors about strange smells, running water, or a chronically barking dog.

Once a landlord has an inkling that the tenant disappeared, the next step is to check local rental regulations for the definition of “abandonment” and chart a course for recovering the property. That course could take several weeks.

For instance, in Florida, a landlord may use a streamlined eviction process by declaring the property abandoned — after the tenant has missed more than one rent payment. In California, rent must be at least 14 days late and there must be telltale signs of abandonment: the neighbors witnessed the tenant moving, the tenant transferred the utilities, forwarded their mail and so on. Then, the landlord must wait another 15-18 days after providing notice of the belief of abandonment. Missouri requires the tenant be at least 30 days late on rent and the landlord must provide notice before claiming abandonment. The best-case scenarios still drag the vacancy into the next month’s rent cycle.

But if the landlord moves too quickly to recover the unit, the penalties are steep. Self-help evictions, like changing the locks and moving the tenant’s belongings prematurely are illegal. A court could order the landlord to pay damages, or force the landlord to open the door again to the old tenant — and where would that leave you if a new tenant has moved in?

You get the picture: abandonment is a major pain.

If the situation arises, here’s a game plan:

1. Investigate whether there has been an abandonment without disturbing the tenant’s privacy or right of possession.

2. If you suspect abandonment, speak with your attorney before entering the property. That’s the quickest and safest way to find out what the abandonment process is in your state.  There is likely, at a minimum, a legal notice requirement, or it may be necessary to file documents with a court seeking an order for possession.

3. Don’t enter the property before obtaining an order for possession unless there’s an emergency or you’ve provided proper notice. If there is an emergency such as an abandoned animal, reach out to the police or animal control. That situation is too dangerous to handle alone. Also, the tenant may have committed a crime, and should be held accountable.

4. Consider bringing an objective witness when entering the property to avoid claims that you stole expensive items that probably never existed.

5. Once legal possession has been returned — the landlord has met all the legal requirements for abandonment or eviction — the landlord must deal with any possessions that the tenant left behind.

6. If items are obviously trash or perishables, most states allow the landlord to dispose of it without legal liability. That’s little consolation to the landlord who is left to clean up the tenant’s trash. Most states allow the cost of cleaning to be added to any judgment awarded if the landlord can track down the tenant.

7. Take photographs of the appearance of the rental property and the tenant’s items before you remove them in case you need to defend your actions. Keep receipts for any costs associated with handling the abandoned property.

8. It is likely that the tenant’s personal items need to be safely stored and the tenant is entitled to notice and the opportunity to come and claim the personal property. The costs of storage are passed on to the tenant. The rental regulations will spell out the details. Typically, the property isn’t worth anything and the landlord can dispose of it after 30 days, but rules do vary. It’s possible that the landlord can assert a lien on any valuable property and apply it to outstanding debt, but failure to follow the letter of the law could result in a theft charge or a claim for damages.

9. Rarely, local law will allow the landlord to put the property out — kick it to the curb, so to speak. That’s never a good option for landlords. For instance, the property inside the unit may not belong to the tenant, and the landlord will be liable to the owner for mishandling it. Also, the trash may violate littering laws, offends the neighbors, and is a definite turnoff to prospective renters.

10. Once all the notice periods have expired and the landlord has possession, the property can be re-rented to another tenant. This is a situation where it is imperative that the locks have been changed before the new tenant moves in.

Preventative measures are always the best way to keep properties running smoothly. Here are some strategies that may help reduce the chances of an abandonment:

Avoid tenants who have a habit of skipping out on the lease. Run a credit check, eviction history, and criminal history watching for things like animal cruelty which could flag an abandonment. Check with the previous landlords to make certain this hasn’t happened before.

Sign tenants up to Report Rent Payments. Tenants who skip out think they can get away with leaving behind a mess. But if that late rent payment is reported, it will catch up to the bad tenant. Maybe not immediately, but eventually it will, and the tenant realizes that. This is one of the strongest tools landlords have to avoid defaults.

Speak with your attorney about beefing up the lease. Some states provide a little wiggle room for landlords and tenants to agree on what constitutes abandonment and that can speed up the timeline. Also, it may be possible to require the tenant to notify the landlord if they are planning an extended absence. That can prevent a false alarm.

Always require emergency contact information in the rental application. This is useful if there is an emergency, if the landlord is struggling to determine if the property is abandoned, and when trying to pursue a monetary judgment.

It helps to stay active in the day-to-day management of the property. When the landlord is available — answering the tenant’s calls, handling repair requests, resolving disputes — a tenant may be less likely to leave without notice. It’s also helpful to develop rapport with the neighbors, who are keeping an eye on the property and have a vested interest in successful tenancies.

This post is provided by Tenant Verification Service, Inc., helping landlords reduce the risks of renting with fraud prevention tools that include Tenant Screening, Tenant Background Checks, (U.S. and Canada), as well as Criminal Background Checks, and Eviction Reports (U.S. only).

Click Here to Receive Landlord Credit Reports.

Disclaimer: The information provided in this post is 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.

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