Handling a Tenant's Abandoned Property: An Overview

Learn the basic rules about how a landlord must handle property abandoned by a tenant.

By , J.D., 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, a stereo, clothes, or furniture—is another story. 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.

It is critical for landlords to know their state's rules on issues such as:

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

This article covers a few basic concepts that landlords in all states should consider. At the end of the article, you'll find guidance on how to learn more about your specific state's abandoned property laws.

Why Has the Tenant Left?

In many states, landlords' options for handling abandoned property 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.

Exceptions to Abandoned Property Laws

State rules on abandoned property do not 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. Motor vehicles are often a special category of personal property to which state rules on abandoned property don'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.

Finding Your State's 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 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 using Nolo's Lawyer Directory.

Learn More

To find out about giving notice to a tenant who has left belongings behind, see Handling Tenant's Abandoned Property: Legal Notice Requirements.

For more information about your rights and responsibilities as a landlord, see Nolo's Landlords section.

For more information about your rights and responsibilities as a tenant, see Nolo's Tenants section.

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