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 Texas Security Deposit Limits and Deadlines.
Getting rid of belongings that have value (whether monetary, medical, or sentimental)—such as a bicycle, a stereo, clothes, or furniture—is another story. Unlike most states, Texas has very few written laws telling landlords how to deal with valuable personal property an ex-tenant leaves behind. The laws that Texas does have relate to how to deal with the property of a tenant who has been evicted, and under those laws a law enforcement officer is the one who takes care of the tenant's abandoned property, not the landlord.
But that doesn't mean there aren't rules you should follow. Texas case law may dictate what you must do with a tenant's abandoned property. If not, there are 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 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 items 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.
Before drafting a new lease or rental agreement, you should research common practices in Texas regarding abandoned property (the Texas State Law Library may provide some help, or a landlords' association could provide useful advice) to ensure your provisions comply, or hire an experienced attorney to help draft appropriate lease language.
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 but the tenant hasn't come back for the property, you can dispose of it. If you decide to sell the property, be sure to do it at a public sale. You should publish notice of the sale in a prominent place, including a local newspaper with daily circulation, and send the tenant a final notice that states where and when you will sell the property.
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 Texas Landlord's Guide to Security Deposit Disputes in Justice Court for details.
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 protect you from claims that you have stolen or destroyed a tenant's property. You can search for an experienced landlord-tenant attorney in Texas using Nolo's Lawyer Directory.