Handling a Tenant's Abandoned Property in Virginia

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

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.

Determining Whether the Property Is Abandoned

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.

Notifying the Tenant

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:

  1. When the landlord terminated the tenancy: If you gave a termination notice to the tenant (such as a notice to pay rent or quit, or a notice to cure or quit) and you included a statement in the notice that any personal property left behind would be disposed of within 24 hours, then you don’t need to provide any further notice. You just need to give the tenant reasonable access to retrieve property during the 24 hours. (Va. Code Ann. § 55.1-1254.) If you’ve already given a termination notice, but didn’t include the notice about abandoned property, you can use the third method listed here to notify the tenant.
  2. When the landlord believes the tenants have abandoned the property. If you gave the tenant a written seven-day notice to determine abandonment (as discussed in the previous section), and included a statement that any property left behind in the rental unit at the end of the seven days will be considered abandoned, and that you would dispose of it within 24 hours of the end of the seven days, you don’t need to give additional notice. (Va. Code Ann. § 55.1-1254.)
  3. When options #1 and #2 don’t apply. If it’s too late for you to give either of the first two notices, you can still give the tenant a separate ten-day notice. The notice should state that you will dispose of any items left in the rental unit within 24 hours after the ten-day notice period has ended. If the tenants’ personal property is still there after ten days, you are free to dispose of the property. (Va. Code Ann. § 55.1-1254.)

All of these notices must be written and contain the following information:

  • a statement that you consider the property to be abandoned and the tenant must remove the property by the end of the notice period
  • where and when the tenant can claim the property, and
  • a statement that if the property is not removed, the landlord will either sell the property or dispose of it.

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.)

Property Left After an Eviction

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.)

Disposing of Abandoned Property

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.)

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 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.

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 local landlord-tenant lawyer. A lawyer will help ensure you are following the law and help protect you from liability to the tenant.

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