When tenants move out, landlords often find themselves not only cleaning up and repairing damage but also dealing with personal property left behind. When it's clear that what's left behind is garbage—such as food wrappers, broken furniture, or leftover cleaning supplies—the landlord is free to dispose of it.
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 landlords can get rid of a tenant's abandoned personal property.
Before getting rid of any personal property, landlords must first determine whether the property is, in fact, abandoned. Under Virginia law, a landlord can treat a rental as abandoned when the lease or rental agreement has been terminated and the landlord has regained possession of the unit. (Va. Code Ann. § 55.1-1254 (2021).)
Sometimes it can be difficult to determine if tenants have moved out of the rental unit, or are simply traveling. In Virginia, a landlord who cannot determine whether the rental has been abandoned must serve a written notice on the tenant stating that the tenant has seven days to let the landlord know in writing that the tenant intends to remain in the rental. If the tenant does not respond within the seven days, the landlord can presume that the tenant has abandoned the rental. (Va. Code Ann. § 55.1-1249 (2021).)
See below for information on handling abandoned property after an eviction in Virginia.
In all situations other than eviction, landlords must give tenants notice of their 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). If it's allowed under the lease or rental agreement, the landlord can send the notice electronically. (Va. Code Ann. § 55.1-1202 (2021).)
When tenants are evicted, landlords 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 hour period is up, the landlord will remove or dispose of any remaining items. (Va. Code Ann. § 55.1-1255 (2021).)
Regardless of the reasons for the tenants' departure, when they don't claim their personal property by the end of the 24-hour period, the landlord can dispose of it in any manner (including selling it or throwing it away). During the 24-hour period, the landlord is not liable for what happens to the tenants' property.
Landlords can use proceeds from any sale of abandoned property in the same manner they'd use the tenants' security deposit: To cover the costs of repairs or unpaid rent. (See Va. Code Ann. § 55.1-1226 for information about Virginia security deposit laws.) Landlords can also use the funds to pay reasonable expenses they incur 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, landlords should check the terms of the lease or rental agreement concerning abandoned property. Under Virginia law, the lease or rental agreement cannot shorten the amount of notice the landlord must give the tenant. However, the terms of the lease or rental agreement could increase the notice period. For example, the lease could require the landlord to give the tenant a 15-day notice to claim abandoned property (rather than the ten-day notice required by law). When the lease or rental agreement provides for a greater notice period, the landlord must abide by its terms.