How Do You Handle Personal Property Abandoned by a Tenant?

Whether a tenant vacates voluntarily or with the aid of the sheriff or marshal, landlords not only have to clean and repair a damaged and dirty unit, but also dispose of a pile of junk. You are much more likely to face this problem when the tenant was evicted and wasn’t allowed to take everything. The evicted tenant's belongings are not allowed in the street. The law enforcement officer who conducts an eviction will require the tenant to carry some personal belongings, leaving the rest to be locked in the rental location and storing it by you until the tenant can manage to take them away.

There is usually no problem with removing obvious trash, but even here you must exercise due care. For example, if you throw away a moth-eaten book and it turns out to have been a valuable first edition, you may run into problems. You can usually also deduct the costs incurred to remove trash from your tenant’s security deposit.

Generally speaking, the higher the value of the property left by the tenant, the more procedures you have to follow. But fair market value isn’t the only standard for the property’s worth and your obligation to safeguard it. In some states, if you discover a tenant’s personal records or mail, you must treat them as valuable material, following the rules for valuable materials when dealing with those properties. This rule may not apply to publicly available catalogs that contain the tenants’ information that the tenants have already agreed to disclose, such as the tenant’s name, address, and phone number.

In rare cases, you may be able to receive a judgment against the tenant for unpaid rent or damage to your property. At the same time, your tenant may have just left valuable property that the tenant has never claimed. If so, you may be able to safely sell the property and apply the proceeds to pay your judgment, but only if you follow the legal procedures prescribed by your State and local rules.

You generally cannot touch a tenant’s property unless you have legally regained possession of your rental property. This occurs when a tenant finally leaves voluntarily, whether or not after giving you the keys; or when the tenant is forcibly evicted by the sheriff, marshal, or constable. It is important that you know your state’s rules on issues such as how to notify tenants of their personal properties and how much time you must allow your tenants to reclaim the property. You may only be able to dispose of the property after following certain procedures.

The reason why the tenant left may also affect your ability to dispose of the personal property left behind. For example, if your tenant left at the end of a lease period or upon a termination notice, most states give you complete freedom to dispose of any remaining personal property. When it comes to evicted tenants or tenants that simply disappeared, your right to discard the properties may be somewhat limited by local laws.