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 Virginia 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. Virginia 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.
When deciding what to do with a tenant’s personal property, you first need to decide whether the property and the rental unit have actually been abandoned.
In some cases, it will be obvious that the rental unit and items left behind are abandoned. If the lease or rental agreement has been terminated and you have regained possession of the unit, then you can consider anything left behind to be abandoned. The most common way this will happen is when the tenant’s lease or rental agreement ends and the tenant gives you the keys upon moving out (see Va. Code Ann. § 55-248.38:1).
Another easy way to determine abandonment is if the tenant moved out of the rental unit because you filed and won an eviction lawsuit against the tenant. Once you have legal possession of the rental unit, then anything left behind in the rental unit can be considered abandoned (see Va. Code Ann. § 8.01-470).
Sometimes, though, it can be difficult to determine whether the tenant has actually moved out of the rental unit. Hopefully your lease or rental agreement requires the tenant to give you notice of an extended absence (7 days or more). (If your lease does not include a provision such as this, you might want to consider adding it in future leases.) If the tenant has not given you notice of an extended absence and you can’t tell if the tenant has moved out, then you can post a written seven-day notice at the rental unit. This notice must inform the tenant that the tenant has seven days to contact you to let you know if the tenant is still living at the rental unit. If you don’t hear from the tenant within seven days, then you can consider the rental unit and any personal items left behind to be abandoned (see Va. Code Ann. § 55-248.33).
Once you have determined that the rental unit has been abandoned, you must notify the tenant before getting rid of any of the personal items left behind at the rental unit. You have three potential ways to notify the tenant of your intention to dispose of the abandoned property. (Please keep in mind that if the tenant moved out of the rental unit because of an eviction, then you do not need to notify the tenant before disposing of the property. That process will be discussed more in the next section.)
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 may be the rental unit). If your lease or rental agreement has a provision that notices can be given electronically, then you can also give the notice to the tenant that way. However you decide to give the tenant notice, you need to be able to provide proof of service (see Va. Code Ann. § 55-248.6).
If the tenant was evicted, then you don’t need to provide any additional notice to the tenant. Instead, the law enforcement officer who evicted the tenant will move all of the tenant’s personal property to a public location (such as the sidewalk in front of the rental unit) and the tenant will have 24 hours to claim the property. Alternatively, instead of moving all the tenant’s personal property to a public location, the landlord could ask the sheriff to move the tenant’s personal property into a storage unit of the landlord’s choice. The tenant would still have 24 hours to contact the landlord to claim the property (see Va. Code Ann. § 55-237.1).
Regardless of how the tenant abandoned the property, if the tenant does not claim the property by the end of the 24-hour period, then you can dispose of it in any way you see fit (including selling or throwing it away). If you decide to sell the property, then you can use the proceeds of the sale to pay for any fees the tenant owes you (such as damage to the rental unit or unpaid rent). If any money is left over, then you must treat it in the same way you treat a security deposit (see Va. Code Ann. § § 55-248.38:1 and 55.248.38:2)
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).
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 Virginia.