Handling a Tenant's Abandoned Property in California

Learn the rules landlords in California must follow to deal with 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. Remember that you can deduct the cost of cleaning up a tenant's rental unit and making any necessary repairs from their security deposit. For details, see California Security Deposit Limits and Deadlines.

Getting rid of belongings that have value (whether monetary, medical, or sentimental)—such as bicycles, furniture, medicine, or family photos—is another story. California has specific laws for when and how you can get rid of a tenant's abandoned personal property, and this article will explain the basics of those laws.

Determining Whether the Property Is Abandoned

In California, determining whether property has been abandoned is relatively easy. There are two things you must consider. First, the tenant's tenancy must be terminated. A tenancy can be terminated in a variety of different ways. If the tenant has been evicted, or moves out of the rental unit in response to an eviction, then the tenancy has been terminated. If the lease or rental agreement ended on a certain date and the tenant moved out of the rental unit by that date, then the tenancy has also been terminated. For more ideas on how to terminate a tenancy, see The Eviction Process in California: Rules for Landlords and Property Managers.

The second thing you must consider is whether the tenant has actually moved out of the rental unit. If the tenant has moved out of the rental unit and the tenancy has been terminated, then you can consider any property left behind at the rental unit to be abandoned (see Cal. Code of Civ. Proc. § 1983(a)).

Notifying the Tenant of Abandoned Property

California landlords must follow very specific steps before disposing of the property that is clearly abandoned.

First, you must inventory and store the personal property in a safe location. You can decide to keep the property in the rental unit, but the rental unit must be safe and secure. Then, you must give the tenant notice of the abandoned property and your intention to dispose of it if the tenant does not claim the property. If you have reason to believe that the tenant is not the owner of the property and you know who the owner is, then you must also send a notice to the actual owner of the property, in addition to the tenant (see Cal. Code of Civ. Proc. § § 1983 and 1986).

The notice must contain very specific information, as required by California law. However, California has made it very easy for you create this notice by providing you with templates to use. You just have to provide the specific information for your situation. The templates can be found at Cal. Code of Civ. Proc. § § 1984 and 1985. It is important to note that there is one template for the tenant and another template for someone other than the tenant who you believe is the owner of the property. Regardless of which notice you use, each notice must contain the following information:

  • a description of the abandoned property
  • the location where the tenant can claim the property
  • the time frame that the tenant (or owner of the property) has to claim the property
  • a statement that reasonable storage costs will be charged to the tenant and the tenant must pay those costs before claiming the property, and
  • a statement that if the property is not claimed in time, it will either be sold or disposed of.

You can either personally deliver this notice to the tenant or mail it to the tenant's last known address, or any address that you believe the tenant might be reached at. If the tenant provided you with an email address, you can also email the notice to the tenant. If you personally deliver the notice to the tenant, then you must store the abandoned property for at least 15 days. If you mail the notice to the tenant (including email), then you must store the property for at least 18 days from the date the notice was mailed (see Cal. Code of Civ. Proc. § 1983).

You can charge the tenant for the reasonable costs of storing the property, and you can prohibit the tenant from claiming the property until those costs have been paid. However, if the tenant claims the property within two days of moving out of the rental unit and the property remained in the rental unit during that time, then the tenant does not need to pay you anything to reclaim the property (see Cal. Code of Civ. Proc. § 1987).

Disposing of Abandoned Property

If the tenant does not claim the property in time, then you can sell the property at a public auction. You must provide notice of the sale in a local newspaper with general circulation at least five days before the sale. The tenant could still claim the property any time before the sale, but the tenant must pay for the costs of storage up to this point and the costs of advertising before reclaiming the property. After the sale, you can use the proceeds of the sale to pay for the costs of storing the property and advertising for the sale, but you must turn over any leftover money to the treasury of the county, where the tenant can claim the proceeds for up to one year after the sale (seeCal. Code of Civ. Proc. § 1988).

If you believe the property is worth less than $700, then you don't have to sell the property. You can either keep it for your own use or dispose of it in any legal manner (see Cal. Code of Civ. Proc. § 1988(a)).

Checking Terms of the Lease or Rental Agreement

Before disposing of any property left behind by the tenant, be sure to check the terms of your lease or rental agreement concerning abandoned property. The lease or rental agreement cannot shorten the amount of notice (15 or 18 days) you must give to the tenant. However, the terms of the lease or rental agreement could increase the legal time periods (for example, your lease could require you to give the tenant a 30-day notice (not 15 days) before disposing of abandoned property).

More Details on Handling, Storing, and Disposing of Tenants' Abandoned Personal Property

For essential legal forms and detailed advice on California landlord-tenant law, including how to deal with property left behind by tenants, see The California Landlord's Law Books: Rights and Responsibilities, by David Brown, Janet Portman, and Ralph Warner (Nolo).

When to Contact a Lawyer

If you have any questions regarding the process of determining abandonment or disposing of property left behind by a tenant, you should contact a lawyer. A lawyer will help ensure you are following the law and help protect you from liability to the tenant. Nolo's lawyer directory can help you find a landlord-tenant lawyer in California.

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