When tenants move out (voluntarily or after an eviction), you might discover that they’ve left personal property behind. Sometimes, it’s clear that what’s been left is garbage, and you’re free to dispose of it. However, when the remaining items have value—whether monetary, medical, or sentimental—different rules apply.
Read on to learn the basics about when and how landlords can get rid of a tenant’s abandoned personal property in Virginia.
Before you dispose of any tenants’ personal property, you must be certain that the tenants have left the rental and don’t intend to return, and that they have truly abandoned the items.
In some cases, abandonment will be obvious. If the lease or rental agreement has been terminated and you have regained possession of the unit, you can consider anything left behind to be abandoned. (Va. Code Ann. § 55.1-1254.) For example, when the lease or rental agreement has ended and the tenant has left the keys behind, it’s probably safe to assume that the tenant doesn’t intend to return to retrieve any remaining items.
Sometimes it can be difficult to determine if tenants have moved out of the rental unit, or are simply traveling. Hopefully, your lease or rental agreement requires the tenants to notify you of an extended absence (7 days or more). (If not, you might want to consider writing it into future leases and rental agreements.) If you didn’t receive notice of an extended absence and you think the tenants have moved out, you can post a written notice at the rental unit. This notice must inform the tenants that they have seven days to contact you to let you know they’re still living there. If, after seven days, you don’t hear from the tenants or otherwise learn that they intend to return to the unit, you can consider the tenancy terminated and assume that any remaining personal items have been abandoned. (Va. Code Ann. §§ 55.1-1202 and 55.1-1249.)
See below for information on handling abandoned property after an eviction in Virginia.
In all situations other than eviction, you must give tenants notice of your intent to dispose of any personal property left behind. Virginia law lays out ways landlords can fulfill the notice requirement:
All of these notices must be written and contain the following information:
The notice can be either hand-delivered or mailed to the tenant at the tenant’s last known address (which might be the rental unit). You can send the notice electronically if allowed under your lease or rental agreement. Be sure to retain proof of delivery no matter what method you use. (Va. Code Ann. § 55.1-1202.)
When tenants are evicted, you do not have to give them special notice regarding their personal property. The sheriff (or other law enforcement officer carrying out the eviction) is in charge of removing the tenants’ items from the rental. Usually the property is put in the “public way” (the street), unless the landlord requests that it be placed in a designated area. The tenants then have 24 hours after the eviction to retrieve their property. When the 24 hours is up, the landlord can remove or dispose of any remaining items. (Va. Code Ann. § 55.1-1255.)
Regardless of the reasons for the tenants’ departure, if they don’t claim their personal property by the end of the 24-hour period, you can dispose of it in any way you see fit (including selling it or throwing it away). During the 24-hour period, you are not liable for what happens to the tenants’ property. If you decide to sell the property, you can use the proceeds in the same manner you’d use the tenants’ security deposit: To cover the costs of repairs or unpaid rent. You can also use the funds to pay reasonable expenses you incurred from selling, storing, or safekeeping the property. (See Va. Code Ann. § 55.1-1255 for disposal after eviction, and Va. Code Ann. § 55.1-1254 for disposal after all other terminations.)
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 Virginia 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 15-day notice to claim abandoned property, instead of ten days, before disposing of it. When your lease or rental agreement provides for a greater notice period, you must abide by its terms.
If you have any questions regarding the process of determining abandonment or disposing of property left behind by a tenant, you should contact a local landlord-tenant lawyer. A lawyer will help ensure you are following the law and help protect you from liability to the tenant.