Handling a Tenant's Abandoned Property: Legal Notice Requirements

It's a good idea to notify a tenant about abandoned property even if your state's law doesn't require it.

Updated by , Attorney · UC Berkeley School of Law

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 might also have to follow very specific rules about handling the property after the notice period has expired.

What the Notice of Abandoned Property Should Include

The notice must typically give the tenant a set amount of time to reclaim the property. It's only after the deadline in the notice passes without contact from the tenant that you can take action. A few states provide a notice form, which you might find laid out in the state's statute or on the state's courts website.

Some states that don't provide forms still require that the notice contain specific information such as:

  • A detailed description of the property left behind. 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.
  • The estimated value of the abandoned property. The law might require you to guesstimate what you could get for the item on Craigslist or at a well-attended flea market or garage sale.
  • Where and how the tenant can reclaim the property. Many states require you to provide the address of the rental premises or an outside storage place, along with the best way to contact you about reclaiming the property.
  • The deadline for the tenant to reclaim the property. State law often dictates a minimum time period—usually at least 7 to 10 days. If your state doesn't specific a timeframe, 10 days is probably a reasonable amount of time.
  • What will happen if the tenant doesn't reclaim the property. Write out your state's legal consequences for not claiming the property by the deadline. If your state doesn't specify what you can do with the property, write out what you plan to do with it once the deadline has passed.

Mail your notice "return receipt requested" to the tenant's last known address 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.

How to Handle Abandoned Property When the Tenant Doesn't Respond

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, so you may throw the property out, sell it, or donate it. You might 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 might encounter rules on the following issues:

Procedures Based on the Value of the Property

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.

Sale of Abandoned Property

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.

Proceeds of Sale of Property

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 might 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 might 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.

Finding Your State's Law on Abandoned Property

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.

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 laws. (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 especially worth contacting a local lawyer if you believe that a tenant has abandoned property that is worth more than a few hundred dollars.

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