Whether a tenant moves out voluntarily or after an eviction, you might 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 New York Security Deposit Limits and Deadlines.
Getting rid of belongings that have value—such as bicycles, electronics, clothes, or furniture—is another story. Unlike most states, New York has no written laws telling landlords how to deal with valuable personal property an ex-tenant leaves behind. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t rules you should follow. New York case law and general common law provides guidelines for what you should do with a tenant’s abandoned property. There are also common sense steps you should take.
It might be too late this time, but consider updating your lease or rental agreement to include provisions about dealing with a tenant’s abandoned property. In states without clear written laws explaining the rules, it’s particularly helpful to use a lease that says exactly what will happen if the tenant moves out and leaves stuff behind.
Your revised lease can cover different circumstances, such as the steps you’ll take if the tenant moves out after giving proper notice or after an eviction. For your own legal protection, these steps should include:
The lease should also cover what you can do with abandoned property, including offering it for sale to the public.
For general tips on crafting a smart lease or rental agreement, see The Basics of Leases and Rental Agreements on Nolo.com.
Before drafting a new lease or rental agreement, you should research common practices in New York (a landlords’ association might provide useful advice) to ensure your provisions comply, or hire an experienced attorney to help draft appropriate lease language. See “Finding New York Law,” below, for advice on finding these resources.
If you’re certain the property has been abandoned and your lease doesn’t cover the matter, it’s usually safe to take the steps set out in the section just above: take inventory of the property (including photographs), carefully store it, and send a detailed notice to the tenant.
For additional guidance on preparing the notice, see Handling a Tenant’s Abandoned Property: Legal Notice Requirements.
If you’ve given the tenant reasonable notice and they haven’t come back for the property, you can dispose of it. To be safe, consider:
If the tenant owes you money for back rent, property damage, or reasonable storage costs—and the tenant’s security deposit didn’t cover everything—you can take the balance out of the sale proceeds. Be sure to keep a written accounting of how you applied the funds. If there’s money left over, you’d be wise to keep funds from sale proceeds in trust for the tenant for at least one year before pocketing the extra cash.
If there is insufficient money to cover back rent, property damage, or storage costs, you may sue the tenant in New York small claims court.
To find out how to handle tenants’ abandoned personal property in New York, you’ll need to look up the law (as laws change frequently) or get professional help.
Doing your own research. If you’re up for it, you can do your own search for New York statutes and cases covering tenants’ abandoned property. Many cities and towns might also regulate tenants’ abandoned property, so it’s best to review your local laws for any requirements. For research 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 could begin by contacting a New York landlords’ association. The New York City Department of Housing Preservation & Development's publication "ABCs of Housing" is also a useful resource for both landlords and tenants located in New York City.
Getting a lawyer’s help. An experienced New York landlord-tenant lawyer can help you find and understand any rules that apply to your situation. It’s particularly wise to consult a lawyer if you think the abandoned property might be very valuable or if you have any reason to believe the tenant could cause problems later. A good lawyer can help you protect yourself from claims that you have stolen or destroyed a tenant’s property.
If you want a comprehensive legal and practical handbook for residential landlords, check out Every Landlord’s Legal Guide, by Marcia Stewart and Janet Portman (Nolo).