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 Hawaii.
If a tenant leaves property behind, can I dispose of it as I see fit or are there rules I must follow?
What should the notice say?
The tenant didn’t reclaim the abandoned property and I want to sell it. How do I hold the sale?
After I sell the tenant’s property, do I get to keep the proceeds?
I don’t want to sell the property. Can’t I just give it away or throw it out?
What are the rules about storing the tenant’s abandoned property?
I had to pay to store the tenant’s property and now the tenant wants the property back. Will I be reimbursed for the storage costs?
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 Hawaii, you may not sell, give away, or throw out a tenant’s abandoned property until you send the tenant a notice and then wait for fifteen days. (See Hawaii Revised Statutes § 521-56.)
Be certain the rental agreement is legally complete before you mail the notice and start the clock on the waiting period. If you need information on the right steps to take to legally end a tenancy, see Evicting a Tenant or Ending a Lease on Nolo.com, read Hawaii’s landlord statutes (see below), or consult a qualified lawyer.
Hawaii law states that the notice must tell the tenant:
You must send the notice to the tenant’s forwarding address or to an address the tenant has left for you. If you don’t have a new address for the tenant, you may mail the notice to the tenant’s last known address. (See Hawaii Revised Statutes § 521-56.)
For more tips on preparing the notice, see Handling a Tenant’s Abandoned Property: Legal Notice Requirements.
After the fifteen-day waiting period has passed, Hawaii law allows you to sell the property in any “commercially reasonable manner.” That could mean anything from selling it on craigslist to having a yard sale. Before holding the sale, however, you must advertise it for at least three consecutive days in a local newspaper with a daily circulation. (See Hawaii Revised Statutes § 521-56.)
You can apply the sale proceeds to storage costs, the costs of holding the sale, and to any debts the tenant owes you -- for example, back rent or damage not covered by a security deposit. If there are additional proceeds, you must save them for the tenant for at least thirty days. After the holding period passes, you can keep the money. (See Hawaii Revised Statutes § 521-56(b).)
Yes. After giving the tenant notice and waiting for fifteen days, you are permitted to donate the property to a charitable organization. Or, if it has no value, you may throw it away. (See Hawaii Revised Statutes § 521-56(c).)
During the fifteen-day waiting period, you should store the abandoned property in a safe place and take reasonably good care of it. That said, you probably won’t be liable for damage to the property unless you damage it on purpose or handle it negligently -- for example, by leaving a good desk 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.
Hawaii law states that you may store the property “at the tenant’s expense.” (See Hawaii Revised Statutes § 521-56.) If the tenant comes for the property after receiving your notice, you aren’t required to turn it over until the tenant pays you for the reasonable costs of storing it.
As discussed 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. If the tenant’s property has not been abandoned, however, you cannot simply seize it to cover back rent or other debts a tenant owes you.
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 illegally destroyed a tenant’s property. You can search for an experienced landlord-tenant attorney in Hawaii using Nolo’s Lawyer Directory.
To read Hawaii’s landlord-tenant laws, see Chapter 521 of the Hawaii Revised Statutes.
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).