Most states have laws governing what happens when a tenant moves out and leaves personal property behind. These laws may control matters such as how long you must wait before dealing with the property and what kind of notice, if any, you have to give the tenant before taking action.
Here are some answers to common questions about handling a tenant's abandoned property in Arizona.
If a tenant leaves property behind, can I dispose of it as I see fit or are there rules I must follow?
How do I notify the tenant that I intend to dispose of abandoned property?
How long does the tenant have to reclaim abandoned property?
What are the rules about storing a tenant's abandoned property?
I had to pay to store the tenant's property. Will I be reimbursed for that?
The proceeds from selling the abandoned property exceed what the tenant owes me. Do I get to keep the extra money?
If a tenant owes me money, can I take and sell the tenant's property to cover the amount due?
When should I get a lawyer's help?
In Arizona, what you must do depends on how the tenancy ended.
Planned moves. If a tenant moves out at the end of a lease or after receiving a legal termination notice from you, you may do whatever you like with property left behind. (Use good sense about this, however. If you think the tenant has unintentionally left something of value, it's both wise and kind to contact the tenant and return the items.) If you incur costs related to removing the property, you can hold the funds back from the tenant's security deposit.
Evictions. If you have evicted a tenant and a sheriff or constable has legally locked them out, Arizona law sets out specific rules for dealing with the tenant's belongings. To find out what to do, see Handling a Tenant's Property in Arizona: Eviction Lockouts.
Unannounced departures. If a tenant simply disappears and you establish that the rental unit has been abandoned, you may not dispose of property left behind unless you give the tenant notice and wait for ten days. (See Arizona Revised Statutes § 33-1370(D) and (E).)
The remainder of this article discusses the steps you must take when dealing with a tenant's property after the tenant has abandoned the rental unit.
You must send the tenant a notice by certified mail, return receipt requested, addressed to the tenant's last known address and any alternate addresses you know of. (See Arizona Revised Statutes § 33-1370(D).)
The notice must provide the location of the rental property and tell the tenant that he or she has ten days to claim it. (See Arizona Revised Statutes § 33-1370(D) and (E).)
For more tips on preparing the notice -- such as including a description of the property and an estimation of its value -- see Handling a Tenant's Abandoned Property: Legal Notice Requirements.
If the tenant contacts you in writing before you dispose of the abandoned property, the tenant has five days to reclaim the belongings. Before doing so, the tenant must reimburse you for any costs you incurred to move or store the items. (See below and also Arizona Revised Statutes § 33-1370(G).)
You may store the abandoned property in:
(Arizona Revised Statutes § 33-1370(D))
You must use "reasonable care" when holding the tenant's property. (Arizona Revised Statutes § 33-1370(E).) That said, you aren't liable for damage to the property unless you damage it on purpose or handle it negligently -- for example, by leaving a good sofa out in the rain.
To avoid problems, be careful when moving and storing the tenant's belongings until the tenant reclaims them or you dispose of them.
Most likely, yes. What happens depends on whether or not the tenant returns to claim the property.
If the tenant doesn't show up. After the ten-day waiting period is over, you can sell the abandoned property to cover anything the tenant owes you, including the costs of storing and selling the items.
If the tenant attempts to reclaim the property. Even if the tenant returns within ten days of receiving the notice, you need not release the property until the tenant pays you for the costs of moving and storing it. There are exceptions to this rule for the following items, which the tenant may take back at any time:
(See Arizona Revised Statutes § 33-1370(E).)
Probably not. Arizona law requires you to mail any excess proceeds to the tenant at the tenant's last known address. You must keep the money for the tenant for at least 12 months. (See Arizona Revised Statutes § 33-1370(E) and (F).)
As discussed just above, you may sell a tenant's abandoned property after the legal notice period expires, and you may keep the proceeds to cover what the tenant owes you. But if the tenant's property has not been abandoned, Arizona law forbids you from seizing it to cover back rent or other debts a tenant owes you. (See Arizona Revised Statutes § 33-1372.)
If you think the abandoned property is very valuable or if you have any reason to believe the tenant may cause problems later, talk to a lawyer before you do anything other than carefully store the tenant's possessions. It's particularly important to get a lawyer's advice if you have any questions about:
A good lawyer can help you protect yourself from claims that you have stolen or improperly destroyed a tenant's property. You can search for an experienced landlord-tenant attorney in Alabama using Nolo's Lawyer Directory.
To read Arizona's landlord laws, see Title 33, Chapter 10 of the Arizona Revised Statutes.
For more information about your rights and responsibilities as a landlord, see the Landlords section of Nolo.com.
If you want a comprehensive legal and practical handbook for residential landlords, check out Every Landlord's Legal Guide, by Marcia Stewart, Ralph Warner, and Janet Portman (Nolo).
Need a lawyer? Start here.