When you're planning to dispose of property left behind by a tenant -- whether by tossing it, selling it, or giving it away -- many states require landlords to give notice to the tenant. You may also have to follow very specific rules about handling the property after the notice period has expired.
The notice must typically give the tenant a set amount of time to reclaim the property, after which you can take specific steps. A few states provide a notice form, which you may find printed in the state statutes. California requires landlords to go further and provide specific information regarding abandoned property on a variety of termination forms (Cal. Civ. Code § 1946 and § 1946.1).
Some state rules require specific information in the notice. Even if your state's laws aren't specific, your notice should include the following information:
It's a good idea to have an objective person (such as another tenant in the building or a neighbor) witness your inventory of the abandoned property to protect yourself against charges that you have taken or destroyed any of the tenant's property. Don't open locked trunks or suitcases; just list the unopened containers. You might consider taking a photo or video of the property.
Here, you're asked to guess what you could get for it on Craigslist or at a well-attended flea market or garage sale.
Many states require you to provide the address of the rental premises or an outside storage place.
State law may dictate this time period.
State law may also set out these rules.
Mail your notice “return receipt requested” so that you will have proof that the tenant received it. The receipt will be useful if the ex-tenant shows up months later, looking for belongings left behind.
If the ex-tenant doesn't contact you within the time specified in the notice, follow your state rules regarding what to do with property. In some states, landlords are pretty much free to do what they want if the tenant does not respond within the specified amount of time, such as 30 days -- that is, you may throw the property out, sell it, or donate it. You may also be able to use the abandoned property to satisfy unpaid rent or damages. Other states require you to give the property to the state.
Depending on how thoroughly your state has regulated this area, you may find rules on the following issues:
Several states allow landlords to keep or dispose of property only if the expense of storing or selling it exceeds a specified figure (such as a few hundred dollars) or the property's value.
Some states require landlords to inventory, store, and sell tenants' property. A few require landlords to sell the property at a public sale (supervised by a licensed and bonded public auctioneer) after first publishing a notice in the newspaper.
States that require you to store and sell the property on behalf of the tenant also allow you to use any money you make from the sale to cover the costs of advertising and holding the sale and storing the property. For example, you may be able to charge the tenant the prorated daily rental value for keeping the property on your premises or any out-of-pocket costs you incur for storing the property.
As mentioned above, some states allow you to use the proceeds to pay for any money owed to you by the tenant -- for example, for unpaid rent or damage to the premises. In many states, the excess proceeds of selling the tenant's property belong to the tenant, or you may be required to pay the balance to a government agency, such as the State Treasurer. State rules are often very specific on this issue; don't just keep sale proceeds without a clear understanding of your state's law.
To find out whether your state has a rule requiring you to give notice, you'll need to look up the law yourself or get professional help.
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 laws. (For tips, see the Legal Research section on Nolo.com.)
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.
A qualified lawyer can help you find and understand the rules that apply to your situation. You can search for an experienced landlord-tenant attorney using Nolo's Lawyer Directory.
To learn the basics of how abandoned property laws work, see Handling a Tenant's Abandoned Property: An Overview.
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).