My former tenants owe me two months' worth of rent. They have moved out of their apartment, and I don't know where to find them now (so a small claims court lawsuit is out of the question). I already used the tenants' security deposit to cover damage to the rental unit. However, the tenants left behind some of their belongings in the house they were renting, including a TV set, a sofa, and a dining room table. Can I take their belongings as payment for what the tenants owe me?
In a few states, you can take the property left behind by the tenants as payment of the rent they owe, even without going to court, if it is clear that the tenant has left permanently. This is called recovery of rent by distress.
Under the Pennsylvania Landlord-Tenant Act, for example, the landlord, or someone working for the landlord, can take the tenant's personal property for unpaid rent without even going to court (see 68 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. §250.302). However, very specific rules must be followed. The property cannot be taken on Sundays and must be taken between the hours of 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. The landlord must give the tenant notice in writing of the property that is to be taken. The notice must contain:
This notice regarding abandoned property must be given to the tenant within five days of taking the personal property. There are three ways the notice can be given to the tenant in Pennsylvania:
Keep in mind that Pennsylvania does not allow certain property to be taken by distress. The law in Pennsylvania also allows the tenant to keep up to $300 in personal property. A list of property not allowed to be taken by distress in Pennsylvania can be found at 68 Pa. Cons. Stat. Ann. § §250.401–404.
Landlords in New Jersey, on the other hand, must go to court and get the court's permission before taking a tenant's personal property in exchange for rent. The landlord can only take the tenant's personal property if the property the tenant was renting was more than just a residential property-for example, the property was used to run a business, such as a day care center. For details, see N.J. Stat. Ann. § 2A:18-72 through 2A:18-84.
It is crucial that you check the statutes of your state to determine how you may dispose of tenant's abandoned property (other than what is clearly trash). Each state has very specific guidelines on how (if at all) the landlord can take tenant's property and what type of property (if any) can be taken. The landlord cannot break into the rental property to take anything, and usually, whatever is taken must be sold by the landlord to cover the rent due. Many states have specific storage and notification procedures and timelines landlords must follow when it comes to tenants' abandoned property.
To find your state rules, start by checking the State Laws on Handling Abandoned Property chart on the Nolo site. Then go to Nolo's State Law Resources, for advice on legal research and how to find and read the rules on abandoned property.