Handling a Tenant's Abandoned Property in Massachusetts

Learn the rules landlords in Massachusetts must follow to deal with property abandoned by a tenant.

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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 you 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 questions about handling a tenant’s abandoned property in Massachusetts.

If a tenant leaves property behind, can I dispose of it as I see fit or are there rules I must follow?
I know the tenant abandoned the rental unit and I don’t want to get a court order. What should I do with the tenant’s personal belongings?
When should I get a lawyer’s help?
Learn more

If a tenant leaves property behind, can I dispose of it as I see fit or are there rules I must follow?

In Massachusetts, 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, or after giving you proper notice to end a month-to-month tenancy, Massachusetts law does not say what landlords must do with any property left behind. If the items are clearly garbage, such as old wine bottles or newspapers, 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, such as jewelry.

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 Massachusetts Security Deposit Limits and Deadlines.

Evictions. Massachusetts law sets out specific rules for dealing with a tenant’s property after winning an eviction lawsuit. To learn about these procedures, see Handling a Tenant’s Property in Massachusetts: After an Eviction.

Unannounced departures. If you believe a tenant has abandoned a rental unit, many lawyers recommend that you wait until rent is past due, then file an eviction lawsuit. After you have a court order giving you back the rental unit, you can dispose of the tenant’s belongings without worrying about legal liability, following the rules for evictions.

I know the tenant abandoned the rental unit and I don’t want to get a court order. What should I do with the tenant’s personal belongings?

If you don’t get a court order officially giving you possession of the rental property, it’s smart to take the following steps before disposing of belongings left behind:

  1. Prepare an inventory of the abandoned personal property, including a detailed list of the items and photographs that document each item’s condition.
  2. Move the property under the supervision of a neutral witness -- such as a neighbor who isn’t involved in any disputes you may have with the tenant -- and store it in a safe place.
  3. Write a letter to the tenant letting them know what the property is, where it is, and that you will dispose of it after a certain date if they don’t reclaim it. Give the tenant at least two weeks to pick up the property and make clear that they must reimburse you for the reasonable costs of moving and storing their belongings before they take them back.

For additional guidance on preparing a letter for the tenant, see Handling a Tenant’s Abandoned Property: Legal Notice Requirements.

When should I get a lawyer’s help?

A qualified lawyer can help you find and understand any rules that apply to your situation. It’s a particularly good idea to consult a lawyer if:

  • you aren’t absolutely certain the property has been legally abandoned
  • you think the abandoned property is valuable, or
  • you believe the tenant may cause problems later.

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 Massachusetts using Nolo’s Lawyer Directory.

Learn more

To find out more about Massachusetts landlord-tenant law, see the extensive list of resources offered on the website of the Massachusetts Trial Court Law Libraries.

For a quick overview of your basic rights and responsibilities as a landlord, read the article Top 9 Landlord Legal Responsibilities in Massachusetts.

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).

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