Landlord/Tenant Law

Handling Tenant Abandonment of Property

Key Takeaways

  • Tenant abandonment involves a renter leaving a rental without taking their personal belongings.
  • Before getting rid of the tenant’s abandoned property, ensure they have actually abandoned the rental unit.
  • State laws generally provide for storing the abandoned property for a certain amount of time after the tenant moves.

When a tenant leaves their property behind, it is a hassle for the property owner. Tenant’s rights laws give them some protection over their property. Before throwing it out, understand your state laws involving abandoned personal items.

Landlord-tenant laws vary by state. Local laws can also regulate how you handle tenants’ personal property. Talk to a local landlord-tenant lawyer for information about your legal options. 

What Is Tenant Abandonment?

Tenant abandonment involves a renter leaving a rental without taking their personal belongings. The tenant may leave without giving proper notice. This is a problem for the landlord because they cannot rent the real estate to a new tenant until they clear the property from the former tenant.

How Do I Know if My Tenant Has Abandoned the Property?

Before removing the tenant’s abandoned property, ensure they have actually abandoned the rental unit. A renter may have left for an extended vacation or to take care of the family for an extended period without notifying property management. Try to get ahold of the prior tenant to see if you can clarify if they are coming back or have left for good.

If the tenant has stopped paying rent and has not responded to phone calls or notices on the door, there is a good chance the tenant does not plan to return. You can also look for signs that the tenant has not been in the unit, like mail piling up or the utilities being disconnected.

Document any evidence of possible abandonment, including notices sent to the tenant, date of last rent payment, and attempts to contact the tenant. You may also want to take photos, including signs of property damage.

Your first step should be to try to contact the tenant. This can include letters, phone calls, emails, and text messages. If you can’t get ahold of the tenant, try to contact family, friends, or their employer. Check the lease agreement for the tenant’s emergency contacts. Document your attempts to contact the tenant, including sending letters by certified mail.

Provide written notice to the tenant that they have violated the rental agreement. Follow any process in the lease terms for notifying them of abandoned belongings and the timeline for disposing of the property.

Local laws generally provide a strict process and timeframe for reclaiming your rental property. Talk to a lawyer to ensure you follow landlord-tenant laws regarding retaking possession, changing the locks, and handling abandoned personal property.

Can I Change the Locks if My Tenant Abandons the Property?

Before you change the locks, make sure you understand the local legal requirements. If you change the locks and the tenant plans to return, they may have a claim against you for property damage and unlawful eviction.

Am I Responsible for the Tenant’s Belongings Left Behind?

State laws generally allow landlords to store abandoned property for a certain time after the tenant moves. For example, in Washington, landlords can dispose of the property after 45 days’ notice. In Nevada, landlords must store property for 30 days after abandonment.

How Can I Recoup Rent and Damages From an Abandoned Property?

If the tenant has unpaid rent or the property damage exceeds the security deposit, you may be able to use money from the sale of the personal property. If you sell the personal property, you can use the money to pay to store the property. Any additional cash can cover damages, including back rent.

Depending on the state, you may be required to hold onto any additional money from selling the property. Generally, landlords must attempt to contact the renter to return the money. After a certain amount of time, the money may become your property. The time limit and process for holding and returning the money can depend on state and local laws.

How Can a Landlord-Tenant Attorney Help?

It is best to avoid tenant abandonment in the first place. Tenant screening can help prevent high-risk tenants, including background checks and getting information from prior landlords. Ensure your lease agreement addresses tenant abandonment so the tenant will be notified if they leave their property behind. If you are a landlord with a tenant who left without giving you notice, a landlord-tenant lawyer can help. Contact a local landlord-tenant attorney for legal advice about handling tenant abandonment of property. 

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