Handling a Tenant's Abandoned Property: An Overview

What landlords can do with a tenant's abandoned property depends heavily on state law.

By , Attorney · UC Berkeley School of Law

Whether a tenant moves out voluntarily or after an eviction, landlords often find themselves 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 food, cleaning supplies, and broken furniture. Landlords are free to dispose of trash left behind in a rental.

However, dealing with abandoned belongings that have value—such as a bicycle, jewelry, clothes, or furniture—is another story.

State Law Controls How to Handle Abandoned Property

In some states, landlords can face serious penalties and liability when they dispose of a tenant's abandoned personal property (other than obvious trash) without first following certain procedures.

Every state has its own laws on handling abandoned property, so it's critical for landlords to research their state's laws on:

  • notifying former tenants about abandoned property
  • storing abandoned property
  • disposing of abandoned property, and
  • using funds from the sale of abandoned property.

Also, landlords should be aware that sometimes state rules on abandoned property vary based on the tenant's reasons for leaving the rental.

Why Has the Tenant Left?

A landlord's options for handling abandoned property might depend on the circumstances of the tenant's departure.

  • The tenant decides to move at the end of a lease or after giving a termination notice. In this situation, many states give landlords maximum flexibility to dispose of leftover belongings.
  • The tenant decides to move after receiving a termination notice from the landlord. Many states give landlords maximum flexibility to dispose of leftover belongings in this situation.
  • The tenant is physically evicted, and personal property is left in the rental or removed to the curb. Some states require landlords to take more pains with the property of a tenant who has been evicted. On the other hand, some require fewer efforts.
  • The tenant disappears. In a few states, property belonging to tenants who leave without notice must be treated differently from property that's abandoned after a tenant who's given notice or been evicted leaves.

When you read your state's law, be on the lookout for differing procedures based on the reason for the tenant's departure.

Many states require landlords to provide tenants written notice about any property left at the rental. Some states even provide (usually within the statute) a form or language that landlords should use to give notice.

A typical notice will give the tenant a set amount of time (usually 7 to 10 days) to reclaim the property. Many states require additional information in the notice, such as:

  • a detailed description of the property left behind
  • the estimated value of the property
  • where or how the tenant can claim the property, and
  • what will happen if the tenant doesn't claim the property.

Even if state law doesn't require landlords to provide a notice of abandoned property, sending a notice anyway can help protect a landlord from a tenant's claim that the landlord improperly took the property.

Storing and Disposing of a Tenant's Abandoned Property

When a former tenant doesn't respond to an abandoned property notice, the landlord must determine what steps they can take to remove the property. Depending on state law, landlords might be able to sell the property to cover the costs of unpaid rent or damage to the property. Other states might require landlords to give the property to the state.

If your state legislates the disposal of abandoned property, look for rules about:

  • How the value of the property affects your options. Several states require landlords to store items when their estimated value exceeds a specified amount.
  • Procedures for selling the property. The state might require you to publish a notice of the sale in a newspaper or to sell the property at a public sale (supervised by a licensed and bonded public auctioneer).

In some states, the law is clear that landlords are pretty much free to do what they want: throw the property out, sell it, or donate it. However, if your state law is silent on what to do with a tenant's abandoned property, it's a good idea to consult with a local landlord-tenant lawyer before disposing of anything of value to protect yourself against any potential future claims from the tenant.

Using Funds From the Sale of Abandoned Property

If your state requires you to store and sell a tenant's abandoned property, it most likely allows you to keep enough proceeds from the sale to cover the costs of storage and advertising and executing the sale.

You might not be able to keep the rest of the proceeds, though—in many states, any remaining proceeds belong to the tenant or to the state. Even if your tenant left owing you rent or damaged your rental, it's risky to hold the funds without a court order that makes it clear the tenant owes you funds.

The bottom line is don't keep sale proceeds without a clear understanding of your state's law.

Exceptions to Abandoned Property Laws

State rules on abandoned property don't apply to the following types of property:

  • Fixtures. When an item is affixed more or less permanently to the wall, such as built-in bookshelves, it is called a "fixture." Absent a written agreement between the landlord and tenant (such as a lease clause specifically addressing fixtures and improvements), fixtures installed by a tenant become a part of the premises. Fixtures belong to the landlord and do not have to be returned to the tenant.
  • Motor vehicles. Occasionally, a departing tenant will leave an inoperable or "junker" automobile in the parking lot or garage. States often have a set of laws specific to abandoned motor vehicles—if so, the state's more general rules on abandoned property probably won't apply. When a tenant leaves a car or other vehicle behind, the landlord should call the local police, giving the vehicle's license plate number, make, and model, and indicate where it's parked. The police will probably arrange to have it towed after determining that it is abandoned.

Landlord Liability for Damage to Abandoned Property

Most courts won't hold a landlord liable for damage to a tenant's abandoned property, unless the damage results from the landlord's willful destruction or negligence. However, to be safe, use reasonable care in moving and storing a tenant's belongings until you're legally able to sell or dispose of them.

How to Find Your State's Abandoned Property Law

To learn your state's exact rules on dealing with abandoned property, you'll need to look up the law yourself or get professional help.

Doing your own research. Nolo's chart, State Laws on Handling Abandoned Property, lists each state's abandoned property laws, and is a good place to begin your research. If, after reading the laws, you don't find a statute covering notice requirements, there's one more step to take: In some states, courts have stepped in to create notice rules. That means you should find and read any cases that have interpreted your state's abandoned property statutes. For tips on researching, see Nolo's Legal Research section.

Contacting a landlords' association. If you're a landlord, you can often get good information and advice by talking with other landlords. You might want to search online for your local or state rental property associations. One place to begin your search is the National Apartment Association, an organization whose members include many state associations. Also, the National Multifamily Housing Council offers many opportunities for networking and information sharing.

Getting a lawyer's help. A qualified lawyer can help you find and understand the rules that apply to your situation. It's particularly wise to consult a lawyer if you think the abandoned property might be very valuable or if you have any reason to believe the tenant might cause problems later. A good lawyer can help you protect yourself from claims that you have stolen or destroyed a tenant's property.

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