Handling a Tenant's Abandoned Property in Tennessee

Learn the rules landlords in Tennessee 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 Tennessee 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. Tennessee 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

Before getting rid of any personal property, you must first determine whether the property is, in fact, abandoned. Under Tennessee law, there are two ways you can determine abandonment.

  1. If the tenant has been gone from the rental unit for at least 30 days and has not paid rent, then you can presume the rental unit and any property left behind are abandoned.
  2. Alternatively, if the tenant is at least 15 days late on rent and you believe the tenant has permanently moved out of the rental unit (for example, the tenant has moved out virtually all belongings or the tenant shut off the utilities to the unit), then you can also presume that the rental unit and any property left behind are abandoned.

See Tenn. Code Ann. § 66-28-405.

You can also terminate the tenant’s tenancy and evict the tenant. Any items left in the rental unit after an eviction are considered abandoned. Keep in mind that you can only evict a tenant for certain reasons, as defined by Tennessee law.The Eviction Process in Tennessee: Rules for Landlords and Property Managers can help you if you decide to pursue this option.

Notifying the Tenant

Tennessee law requires you to give the tenant notice before you can dispose of any property left behind at an abandoned rental unit.

The notice is to inform the tenant that you believe the premises are abandoned and that you will dispose of any property left behind at the rental unit unless you hear from the tenant. The notice must be in writing and contain the following information:

  • a statement that you believe the rental unit is abandoned
  • a statement that the tenant has ten days to contact you or you will enter the rental unit and take possession of it
  • a statement that if the tenant does not contact you within ten days, then you will remove the tenant’s possessions from the rental unit and re-rent the unit
  • a statement that the tenant will have another 30 days (after the first ten days have ended) to claim any possessions left behind at the rental unit or you will dispose of the possessions, and
  • a telephone number and mailing address where you can be contacted.

You must post this notice at the rental unit and also mail the notice to the tenant at the rental unit (see Tenn. Code Ann. § 66-28-405(b)).

If the tenant has not contacted you within the first ten days after receiving the notice, then you have the option of removing the tenant’s belongings and placing them in a storage unit. You can charge the tenant for the storage fees (see Tenn. Code Ann. § 66-28-405(c)).

Disposing of Abandoned Property

If the tenant has not claimed the property by the end of the 30-day period, then you can dispose of the tenant’s possession. If you decide to sell the property, then you can use the proceeds of the sale toward fees the tenant owes you, such as unpaid rent, damage to the rental unit, storage unit fees, and sale costs. If there is any money left over, then you must hold onto the money for at least six months after the sale. If the tenant does not claim the money within that time, then you can keep it (see Tenn. Code Ann. § 66-28-405(c)).

Checking Terms of the Lease or Rental Agreement

Before disposing of any property left behind by the tenant, be sure to check the terms of your lease or rental agreement concerning abandoned property. Under Tennessee law, the lease or rental agreement cannot shorten the amount of notice you must give to the tenant. However, the terms of the lease or rental agreement could increase the notice period. For example, your lease could require you to give the tenant a 45-day notice to claim abandoned property, instead of 30 days.

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 Tennessee.

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