Handling a Tenant's Abandoned Property: An Overview

Learn the basics of handling property abandoned by a tenant.

Whether a tenant moves out voluntarily or after an eviction, you may find yourself 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 wine bottles, food, and newspapers. When it’s clear that you’re dealing with garbage, you’re free to dispose of it.

Getting rid of belongings that have value -- such as a bicycle, a stereo, clothes, or furniture -- is another story. In some states, a landlord can face serious liability for disposing of the tenant’s personal property (other than obvious trash) unless you first take specific steps.

It is critical that you know your state’s rules on issues such as how to notify tenants and how much time you must give them to reclaim property before you sell it, donate it, or throw it away. This article covers a few basic concepts to help you understand your state’s rules. At the end, we provide guidance to help you find your state’s laws.

Why Has the Tenant Left?

In many states, your options for handling a tenant’s property depend on the circumstances of the tenant’s departure.

  • The tenant decides to move at the end of a lease or after giving you a termination notice. In this situation, many states give you maximum flexibility to dispose of leftover belongings.
  • The tenant decides to move after receiving a termination notice (even one for cause, such as nonpayment of rent) from you. Many states give you maximum flexibility to dispose of leftover belongings in this situation.
  • The tenant is physically evicted, along with his or her personal belongings that may be dumped on the street or sidewalk by the sheriff. 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 left after a deliberate move.

When you read your state’s law, be on the lookout for different rules based on the reason for the tenant’s departure.

Exceptions to Abandoned Property Laws

State rules on abandoned property don’t apply to obvious garbage, nor do they apply to the following types of property.

Fixtures. If a tenant attaches something more or less permanently to the wall, such as built-in bookshelves, it is called a “fixture.” Absent a specific written agreement such as a lease provision or a contract between you, 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. If the tenant has left a car or other vehicle behind, 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. To find out what laws your state has on the books, see State Laws on Handling Abandoned Property. There, you’ll find the statute numbers you’ll need to look up. 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, see the Legal Research section on Nolo.com.)

Contacting a landlords’ association. You can often get good information and advice by talking with other landlords. You may 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 may 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 tips on what to do if the tenant owes you money, see Handling a Tenant’s Abandoned Property When the Tenant Owes You Money.

For more information about your rights and responsibilities as a landlord, see the Landlords section of Nolo.com.

This article was adapted from Every Landlord’s Legal Guide, the most comprehensive and up-to-date legal and practical guide for residential landlords, by Marcia Stewart, Ralph Warner, and Janet Portman (Nolo).

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