Handling a Tenant's Abandoned Property in Pennsylvania

Learn the rules landlords in Pennsylvania must follow to deal with property abandoned by a tenant.

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  Pennsylvania Security Deposit Limits and Deadlines.

Getting rid of belongings that have value (whether monetary, medical, or sentimental) —such as bicycles, furniture, medicine, or family photos—is another story. Pennsylvania has specific laws for when and how you can get rid of a tenant’s abandoned personal property, and this article will explain the basics of those laws.

Determining Whether the Property Is Abandoned

When considering whether you can dispose of a tenant’s personal property, you must first determine whether the tenant abandoned the personal property left behind at the rental unit. Pennsylvania law has made it clear that there are only two ways you can consider the property to be abandoned.

The first is whether the tenant moved out of the rental unit because of an order of possession. You receive an order of possession at the end of an eviction lawsuit. That means if the tenant moves out of the rental unit in response to an order of possession, or because the tenant lost an eviction lawsuit, then you can consider any property left behind to be abandoned.

The second way you can consider the property abandoned is if the tenant has moved out of the rental unit and given you either a forwarding address or a written notice stating that the tenant has moved out (see  Pa. Act 129). If you are unsure whether the tenant has moved out of the rental unit and you have not received any type of communication from the tenant, then you may want to consider legal ways of terminating the tenancy and bringing an eviction lawsuit against the tenant.  The Eviction Process in Pennsylvania: Rules for Landlords and Property Managers  has some information that might be useful for you.

When Tenant Can Reclaim Property

If the tenant has moved out because of one of the ways described above, then the tenant will have ten days after moving out to claim any personal property left behind at the rental unit. If the tenant claims the property within ten days of moving, then you are required to hold on to the property for an additional 30 days. You can, however, move the property to a storage unit after the ten days and charge the tenant for the costs of moving and storing the property.

If the tenant moved out of the rental unit because of an eviction and the order of possession informed the tenant that the tenant would have ten days to claim any property left behind, then you are not required to send the tenant any kind of notice regarding the property or your intent to dispose of it if not claimed in time.

You will be required to give the tenant notice, though, if the tenant moved out of the rental unit for any reason other than an eviction (see  Pa. Act 129).

Notifying the Tenant

If the tenant moved out of the rental unit and gave you written notice or a forwarding address, then you need to check the terms of your lease or rental agreement to determine how you need to notify the tenant.

If your lease or rental agreement with the tenant has a statement in it regarding what will happen to the tenant’s property if the tenant moves out (that is, that the tenant has ten days to claim the property and then an additional 30 days to pick it up), then you only need to send notice to the tenant. If the lease or rental agreement says nothing about what happens to the tenant’s property after moving out, then in addition to sending notice to the tenant, you also need to send notice to the tenant’s emergency contact.

The notice must state that the tenant has ten days from the date of the postmarked notice to claim the property and that if the tenant claims the property within ten days, then the landlord will hold onto the property for an additional 30 days at a location of the landlord’s choosing. The notice must also state that if you don’t hear from the tenant within the ten days, then you will dispose of the property. The notice needs to also contain the following information:

  • a description of the abandoned property
  • the location where the tenant can claim the property, and
  • a statement that reasonable storage and moving costs will be charged to the tenant after ten days.

You can either personally deliver the notice to the tenant or send the notice by regular mail to the tenant’s forwarding address or the tenant’s last known address (most likely the rental unit). If the notice is mailed, the ten-day time frame starts running by the date of the postmark (see  Pa. Act 129).

Disposing of Abandoned Property

If the tenant does not claim the property within ten days or pick up the property within 30 days, then you are free to dispose of the property any way you’d like. If you decide to sell the property, then you can use the proceeds of the sale to pay for fees or costs the tenant owes you. If there is money left over, then you must forward the proceeds to the tenant by certified mail. If you don’t have the tenant’s forwarding address, then you need to hold on to the proceeds for at least 30 days. If the tenant does not claim the money within those 30 days, then you can keep it (see  Pa. Act 129).

Checking Terms of the Lease or Rental Agreement

In addition to checking whether your lease or rental agreement has a statement in it regarding what will happen to the tenant’s property if the tenant moves out, you should also check to make sure your lease or rental agreement doesn’t change any of the time frames for storing the property. The lease or rental agreement cannot shorten the amount of notice (ten days) you must give to the tenant. However, the terms of the lease or rental agreement could increase the legal time periods (for example, your lease could require you to give the tenant 20 days to claim the property and an additional 45 days to pick it up).

When to Contact a Lawyer

If you have any questions regarding the process of determining abandonment or disposing of property left behind by a tenant, you should contact a lawyer. A lawyer will help ensure you are following the law and help protect you from liability to the tenant. Nolo’s lawyer directory can help you find a good  landlord-tenant lawyer in Pennsylvania.

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