Whether a tenant moves out voluntarily or after an eviction, you may find yourself not only cleaning up and repairing damage, but also dealing with personal property left behind. Usually, this will just be trash that the tenant doesn’t want, such as old wine bottles, food, and newspapers. When it’s clear that you’re dealing with garbage, you’re free to dispose of it. Remember that you can deduct the cost of cleaning up a tenant's rental unit and making any necessary repairs from their security deposit. For details, see D.C. Security Deposit Limits and Deadlines.
Getting rid of belongings that have value -- such as a bicycle, a stereo, clothes, or furniture -- is another story. Unlike most states, D.C. has no written laws telling landlords how to deal with valuable personal property an ex-tenant leaves behind. (It did have a provision on the books, but that law is currently defunct due to lack of funding. See D.C. Code § 42-3505.01(o).) That said, there are still rules you should follow. Case law may dictate what you must do with a tenant’s abandoned property. If not, there are common sense steps to take.
Include Abandoned Property Rules in Your Lease or Rental Agreement
It may be too late this time, but consider updating your lease or rental agreement to include provisions about dealing with a tenant’s abandoned property. In states without statutes explaining the rules, it’s particularly helpful to have a lease that says exactly what will happen a tenant leaves stuff behind.
Your revised lease can cover different circumstances, such as the steps you’ll take if the tenant moves out after giving proper notice or after an eviction. For your own legal protection, these steps should include:
- taking inventory of the abandoned property
- storing any property that has value
- giving written notice to the tenant detailing how and where to reclaim the property
- providing a deadline for picking up the property (45 days is common)
- requiring the tenant to reimburse you for the reasonable costs of storing the property, and
- declaring that failure to claim the property means it is legally abandoned.
The lease should also cover what you can do with abandoned property, including offering it for sale to the public.
For general tips on crafting a smart lease or rental agreement, see The Basics of Leases and Rental Agreements on Nolo.com.
Before drafting a new lease or rental agreement, you should research common practices in the District of Columbia (a landlords' association may provide useful advice) to ensure your provisions comply, or hire an experienced attorney to help draft appropriate lease language. See "Finding District of Columbia Law," below, for advice on finding these resources.
When There’s No Written Agreement
If you’re certain the property has been abandoned and your lease doesn’t cover the matter, it’s usually safe to take the steps set out in the section just above: take inventory of the property (including photographs), carefully store it, and send a detailed notice to the tenant.
For additional guidance on preparing the notice, see Handling a Tenant’s Abandoned Property: Legal Notice Requirements.
When the Tenant Doesn’t Reclaim the Property
If you’ve given the tenant reasonable notice and they haven’t come back for the property, you can dispose of it. To be safe, you may wish to:
- sell the property at a public sale
- publish notice of the sale in a prominent place, including a newspaper with daily, local circulation, and
- send the tenant a final notice that states where and when you will sell the property.
If the tenant owes you money for back rent, property damage, or reasonable storage costs -- and the tenant’s security deposit didn’t cover everything -- you can take the balance out of the sale proceeds. If there’s money left over, you’d be wise to keep funds from sale proceeds in trust for the tenant for at least one year before pocketing the extra cash.
If there is insufficient money to cover back rent, property damage, or storage costs, you may sue the tenant in small claims court. See District of Columbia Landlord’s Guide to Security Deposit Disputes in Small Claims Court for details.
Finding District of Columbia Law
To find out whether the District of Columbia has case law dealing with abandoned property, you’ll need to look up the law yourself or get professional help.
Doing your own research. If you’re up for it, you can do your own search for District of Columbia cases covering tenants’ abandoned property. For research tips, see the Legal Research section on Nolo.com.
Contacting a landlords’ association. You can often get good information and advice by talking with other landlords. You may want to begin by contacting the D.C. Landlord Association.
Getting a lawyer’s help. A qualified lawyer can help you find and understand any rules that apply to your situation. It’s particularly wise to consult a lawyer if you think the abandoned property may be very valuable or if you have any reason to believe the tenant may cause problems later. A good lawyer can help you protect yourself from claims that you have stolen or destroyed a tenant’s property. You can search for an experienced landlord-tenant attorney in the District of Columbia using Nolo’s Lawyer Directory.
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).