When a tenant moves out of a rental unit, landlords often find themselves not only cleaning up and repairing damage but also dealing with personal property left behind. Usually, what's left behind is trash that the former tenant didn't want. As a landlord, when it's clear that you're dealing with garbage, you're free to dispose of it—and to deduct the cost of cleaning and repairing the rental unit from the security deposit. For details, see Washington Security Deposit Limits and Deadlines.
On the other hand, items left behind that have value (whether monetary, medical, or sentimental)—such as bicycles, furniture, medicine, or family photos—create more of a hassle for landlords. Washington has specific laws for when and how you can get rid of a tenant's abandoned personal property.
Please note that this article does not discuss what to do with a tenant's property after the tenant has been evicted. Under Washington law, there are different rules and procedures for you to follow after an eviction. If you would like to view those rules, see Washington Revised Code Annotated section 59.18.312 (2020).
Before doing anything with the tenant's property, landlords must first determine whether the property is actually abandoned. Under Washington law, you can consider the property to be abandoned if the tenant has stopped paying rent and has indicated (by words or actions) an intent to end the tenancy. (Wash. Rev. Code Ann. § 59.18.310(1) (2020)). The tenant can do this in a variety of ways, including giving you written notice that he or she is moving or just moving out and leaving you the keys. If you are unsure whether the tenant has moved out of the rental unit, consider bringing an eviction lawsuit against the tenant—if your suit is successful, you will be on solid legal ground to regain possession of the rental unit.
Once you have determined that the tenant has abandoned the property, you can enter the rental unit and deal with any property the tenant left behind. Although you cannot immediately dispose of the property, you can move it to a reasonably secure location. Then you must make reasonable efforts to notify the tenant in writing of your intention to dispose of the property if the tenant does not claim it. The notice must include the following information:
You must mail this notice to the tenant at the tenant's last known address and any other address that you might know for the tenant.
If the tenant's property is worth $250 or less, then you must wait seven days after giving the tenant notice before selling or disposing of the property. If the property is worth more than $250, then you must wait 45 days before selling or disposing of the property. (Wash. Rev. Code Ann. § 59.18.310(2) (2020).)
If the tenant has not claimed the property in time (either seven or 45 days), then you can either sell or dispose of the property. If you decide to sell the property, then you can use the proceeds of the sale toward money the tenant might owe you, including unpaid rent, damage to the rental unit, and the costs of storing the property. If there is any money left over, you must hold onto the money for one year from the date of the sale. If the tenant does not claim the money within that time, then you can keep it. (Wash. Rev. Code Ann. § 59.18.310(2) (2020).)
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 Washington 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 45-day notice to claim abandoned property, regardless of the value of the property. (Wash. Rev. Code Ann. § 59.18.230 (2020).)
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 attorney. An attorney will help ensure you are following the law and help protect you from liability to the tenant.