Most states have laws governing what happens when a tenant moves out and leaves personal property behind. These laws may control matters such as how long landlords must wait before dealing with the property and what kind of notice, if any, you must give the tenant before taking action. Here are answers to common landlord questions about handling a tenant’s abandoned property in Delaware.
If a tenant leaves property behind, can I dispose of it as I see fit or are there rules I must follow?
The court gave me permission to take back a rental unit. How long must I wait before removing the tenant’s property?
What are the rules about storing a tenant’s abandoned property?
I had to pay to store the tenant’s property. Will I be reimbursed for that?
When should I get a lawyer’s help?
In Delaware, what you must do depends on how the tenancy ended.
Planned moves. If a tenant moves out at the end of a lease and returns the key, Delaware law does not say what you must do with property left behind. If the items are clearly garbage, you can throw them out. For other belongings, the common sense approach is to contact the tenant and try to return the property, especially if you believe the tenant accidentally left something of value. If it costs you anything to remove the tenant’s property, you can hold the funds back from the security deposit.
Evictions. To learn about handling a tenant’s property after winning an eviction lawsuit, see Handling a Tenant’s Property in Delaware: After an Eviction.
Unannounced departures. If you believe a tenant has abandoned a rental unit, Delaware law requires you to get a court order to take the unit back. To get the order, you must file what’s called a “summary possession action” in the local Justice of the Peace Court. (To find out what steps to take, see How to File and Defend a Summary Possession Action in the Justice of the Peace Court on the Delaware State Courts website.)
The rest of this article discusses how to deal with a tenant’s property when you have a court order allowing you to reclaim an abandoned rental unit.
The tenant has five days to appeal the decision granting you summary possession. If the tenant doesn’t file an appeal within five days, you may immediately remove the tenant’s property from the rental unit. However, you must store the property for at least seven days after the close of the appeal period; then you may get rid of it. (See the website of the Delaware State Courts and Delaware Code § 5507(e).)
Delaware doesn’t provide specific rules for storing the property, but you should keep it in a safe place, such as inside the rental unit or another secure location. You won’t be liable for damage to the property unless you damage it on purpose or handle it negligently -- for example, by leaving a good sofa out in the rain.
To avoid problems, be careful when moving and storing the tenant’s belongings until the tenant reclaims them or you dispose of them.
Most likely, yes. Delaware law is clear that you may store the property “at the tenant’s expense.” This means that after the waiting period is over, you can sell the abandoned property to cover the costs of storing it. Or, if the tenant shows up to reclaim the property, you don’t have to turn it over until the tenant pays the storage costs. (See Delaware Code § 5507(e) and the Delaware State Courts website.)
If you think the abandoned property is very valuable or if you have any reason to believe the tenant may cause problems later, talk to a lawyer before you do anything other than carefully store the tenant’s possessions. A good lawyer can help you protect yourself from claims that you have stolen or improperly destroyed a tenant’s property.
You can search for an experienced landlord-tenant attorney in Delaware using Nolo’s Lawyer Directory.
For more information about your rights and responsibilities as a landlord, see the Landlords section of Nolo.com, including the article Top 10 Landlord Legal Responsibilities in Delaware.
If you want a comprehensive legal and practical handbook for residential landlords, check out Every Landlord’s Legal Guide, by Marcia Stewart, Ralph Warner, and Janet Portman (Nolo).