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 Louisiana Security Deposit Limits and Deadlines for details.
Getting rid of belongings that have value -- such as a bicycle, a stereo, clothes, jewelry, or furniture -- is another story. Louisiana has few written laws telling landlords how to deal with valuable personal property an ex-tenant leaves behind. The Louisiana Code allows you to keep some of a tenant’s abandoned property if the tenant moves out owing you back rent or damages not covered by a security deposit, but it’s not clear what you can keep or how you must proceed. (See Louisiana Code §§ 2707 and 4705.)
Your best bet is to take common sense steps to deal with a tenant’s abandoned property and seek professional advice if you need it.
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 clear 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 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.
Before drafting a new lease or rental agreement, you should research common practices in Louisiana (a landlords’ association may provide useful advice) to ensure your provisions comply, or hire an experienced attorney to help draft appropriate lease language. See “Getting Help With Louisiana Law,” below, for advice on finding these resources.
For general tips on crafting a smart lease or rental agreement, see The Basics of Leases and Rental Agreements on Nolo.com.
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 before selling or otherwise disposing of anything valuable. (For additional guidance on preparing the notice, see Handling a Tenant’s Abandoned Property: Legal Notice Requirements.)
On the other hand, if you're not sure whether the tenant has actually abandoned the property, you shouldn’t proceed without professional advice. A Louisiana court has made clear that seizing a tenant’s property -- even if you think it’s abandoned and simply put it in storage -- can subject you to legal liability. (See Gibbs v. Harris, 799 So. 2d 665, 671, La. Ct. App. 2001.)
When the Tenant Doesn’t Reclaim the Property
If you’ve given the tenant appropriate 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 the extra funds 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 Louisiana Landlord’s Guide to Security Deposit Disputes in Small Claims Court for details.
Getting Help With Louisiana Law
Contact a landlords’ association. You can often get good information and advice by talking with other landlords. You may want to begin by contacting a Louisiana landlords’ association.
Consult a qualified lawyer. A qualified lawyer can help you find and understand the rules that apply to your specific situation. It’s particularly wise to consult a lawyer if:
- you think a tenant’s abandoned property may be very valuable
- you aren’t sure whether the property is legally abandoned, 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 Louisiana using Nolo’s Lawyer Directory.
Learn more. For more information about your rights and responsibilities as a landlord, see the Landlords section of Nolo.com, including the article Top 7 Landlord Legal Responsibilities in Louisiana. 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).