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. See Iowa Security Deposit Limits and Deadlines for details.
Getting rid of belongings that have value -- such as a bicycle, a stereo, clothes, or furniture -- is another story. Unlike most states, Iowa has no clear laws telling landlords how to deal with valuable personal property an ex-tenant leaves behind. The only statute discussing how to deal with abandoned personal property applies to mobile homes and belongings left in or around them. (See Iowa Code § 555B.2.)
To protect yourself from legal troubles, the Rental Handbook published by the Iowa Finance Authority recommends that you talk to a lawyer whenever you believe a tenant has abandoned a rental unit and left property behind. (For help finding a lawyer, see “Learn More,” below.) That’s wise advice, but if you decide to proceed without a lawyer’s help, the following suggestions may help.
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 written laws explaining the rules, it’s particularly helpful to use a lease that says exactly what will happen if the tenant moves out and 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 (30 days is common)
- requiring the tenant to reimburse you for the reasonable costs of moving and storing the property, and
- declaring that failure to claim the property means it is legally abandoned.
The lease should also cover what you intend to 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 Iowa (a landlords’ association may provide useful advice) to ensure your provisions comply, or hire an experienced attorney to help draft appropriate lease language. See “Learn More,” 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 smart to keep funds from sale proceeds in trust for the tenant for at least one year. After that, research Iowa law or consult a lawyer to find out whether you can keep the money or if you must turn it over to the county or state.
If there is insufficient money to cover back rent, property damage, or storage costs, you may sue the tenant in small claims court. See Iowa Landlord’s Guide to Security Deposit Disputes in Small Claims Court for details.
Finding a landlords’ association. You can often get good information and advice by talking with other landlords. You may want to begin by contacting an Iowa landlords’ 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’re not absolutely certain the property has been legally abandoned
- you think the abandoned property is very valuable, or
- 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 Iowa using Nolo’s Lawyer Directory.
Understanding your basic rights and responsibilities as a landlord. 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 Iowa. And 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).