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 New York Security Deposit Limits and Deadlines.
Getting rid of belongings that have value -- such as a bicycle, a stereo, 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 provides guidelines for what you must do with a tenant’s abandoned property. There are also common sense steps you should take.
It may 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 may 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, you may wish to:
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. 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 small claims court. See New York Landlord’s Guide to Security Deposit Disputes in Small Claims Court for details.
To find out whether New York has case law dealing with abandoned property, you’ll need to look up the law or get professional help.
Doing your own research. If you’re up for it, you can do your own search for New York cases covering tenants’ abandoned property. 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 may want to begin by contacting a New York landlords’ association.
Getting a lawyer’s help. A qualified 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 may be very valuable or if you have any reason to believe the tenant may cause problems later. A good lawyer can help you protect yourself from claims that you have stolen or destroyed a tenant’s property. You can search for an experienced landlord-tenant attorney in New York using Nolo’s Lawyer Directory.
For more information about your rights and responsibilities as a landlord, see the Landlords section of Nolo.com, including the article Top 9 Landlord Legal Responsibilities in New York.
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).