My tenant left behind some things, can I sell them?

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Question:

My tenant recently moved out, owing me a few months’ rent. He left behind a lot of his belongings, including a TV , bicycle, and sofa. Can I sell these abandoned items to cover the money the tenant owes me?

Answer:

When a tenant who has moved out—whether voluntarily or by eviction—owes back rent (or money for damages), many landlords find it appealing to sell whatever property of value is left behind, without first trying to track down the tenant. This is a risky approach in many states—even if you have a court judgment for money damages (as a result of an eviction lawsuit):

  • In some states, you can face serious liability for disposing of a tenant’s personal property (other than obvious trash) unless you follow specific state rules.
  • Other states allow landlords to keep or sell abandoned property if the tenant owes you money, even if there is no court judgment directing the tenant to pay you. In legalese, you have an “automatic lien” on your tenants’ belongings in states that allow this. Before you got out and advertise all of the tenant’s possessions on Craigslist, read your statute carefully. Your state may first require you to post notices in newspapers announcing your intent to sell an item abandoned by a tenant. Also, be clear about what items might be exempt from an automatic lien (such as season-appropriate clothing or blankets).

You’ll need to read your own state statute for details on how you may dispose of a tenant’s abandoned belongings, including whether and how you must notify tenants before you may dispose of or sell it, any statutory deadline for tenants to reclaim property, and how you may use the proceeds of the sale of property. To find your statute, see State Laws on Handling Abandoned Property. And for advice on doing legal research and understanding state law on abandoned property, see Nolo’s Laws and Legal Research section.

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