What to Do with a Tenant’s Abandoned Property

garage full of abandoned tenants property

Landlords and property managers know that when tenants leave, they don’t always take all their things with them. Recently a client asked our risk management legal advisory team whether they could get rid of personal property a tenant left behind when they moved out.

3 Steps to Dealing with a Tenant’s Abandoned Property

Whether the tenant left because their lease was up,  got evicted, or just moved out, there are laws about how you handle abandoned personal property. These laws vary by state, but most have rules about determining if property is abandoned, notifying the former tenant, and wait time before disposing of property.

Is It Abandoned Property?

First, you need to determine if the personal property is actually abandoned. In California, determining whether property has been abandoned is relatively easy. Consider these two things:

  • The tenant’s tenancy must be terminated. If the tenant has been evicted, or moves out of the rental unit in response to an eviction, then the tenancy has been terminated. If the lease or rental agreement ended on a certain date and the tenant moved out of the rental unit by that date, then the tenancy has also been terminated.
  • The tenant must have actually moved out of the rental unit. If the tenant has moved out of the rental unit and the tenancy has been terminated, then you can consider any personal property left behind at the rental unit to be abandoned. (California Code of Civ. Proc. § 1983(a)).

In some cases, you may need to determine if the tenant has actually moved out of the real property in the middle of the lease.  If it appears that the tenant has moved out without notice, and rent is 14 or more days overdue, in California you should send the Notice of Belief of Abandonment below.

Notifying the Tenant of Abandoned Property

Just because you’ve determined that personal property is abandoned doesn’t mean you can just trash it (or keep it.) You may need to notify former tenants about their abandoned property.

For example, California landlords must follow very specific steps before disposing of the property that is clearly abandoned.

  1. Inventory and store the tenant’s abandoned property in a safe location. Best practice is to photograph items left behind.
  2. Store the abandoned property. You can keep the property in the rental unit, but the rental unit must be safe and secure.
  3. Notify the tenant of the abandoned personal property and your intention to dispose of it if they do not claim it. If you have reason to believe that the tenant is not the owner of the property and know who the owner is, then you must also notify the actual owner of the property, in addition to the tenant. (California Code of Civ. Proc. § § 1983 and 1986).

For step 3, California law requires the notice to contain very specific information. Conveniently there is a template for abandonment of real property in California Code of Civ. Proc. § § 1984 and 1985, as follows:

Notice of Belief of Abandonment

To:  _____ (Name of lessee/tenant) _____

_____ (Address of lessee/tenant) _____

This notice is given pursuant to Section 1951.3 of the Civil Code concerning the real property leased by you at ________ (state location of the property by address or other sufficient description). The rent on this property has been due and unpaid for 14 consecutive days and the lessor/landlord believes that you have abandoned the property.

The real property will be deemed abandoned within the meaning of Section 1951.2 of the Civil Code and your lease will terminate on ________ (here insert a date not less than 15 days after this notice is served personally or, if mailed, not less than 18 days after this notice is deposited in the mail) unless before such date the undersigned receives at the address indicated below a written notice from you stating both of the following:

(1) Your intent not to abandon the real property.

(2) An address at which you may be served by certified mail in any action for unlawful detainer of the real property.

You are required to pay the rent due and unpaid on this real property as required by the lease, and your failure to do so can lead to a court proceeding against you.

(If the tenant has abandoned personal property, Insert items 1-5 below here.)

Dated: _______ _____  (Signature of lessor/landlord)

(Type or print name of lessor/landlord)

(Address to which lessee/tenant is to send notice)

Note that there is one template for the tenant and another template for someone other than the tenant who you believe is the owner of the property.

These are the key pieces of information that each notice must contain when dealing with abandoned personal property:

  1. A description of the abandoned property
  2. The location where the tenant can claim the property
  3. The time frame that the tenant (or owner of the property) has to claim the property
  4. A statement that reasonable storage costs will be charged to the tenant and the tenant must pay those costs before claiming the property
  5. A statement that if the property is not claimed in time, it will either be sold or disposed of.

You can personally deliver this notice to the tenant or mail it to the tenant’s last known address, or any address where you believe the tenant might be reached. If the tenant provided you with an email address, you can also email the notice to the tenant.

If you personally deliver the notice to the tenant, then you must store the tenant’s abandoned property for at least 15 days. If you mail the notice to the tenant (including email), then you must store the property for at least 18 days from the date the notice was mailed. The time frames for storing property varies widely by location, so check the notification and storage guidelines for your state.

As a landlord, you can charge the tenant for the reasonable costs of storing the property and prohibit the tenant from claiming the property until those costs have been paid. However, if the tenant claims the property within two days of moving out of the rental unit and the property remained in the rental unit during that time, then the tenant does not need to pay anything to reclaim the property.

After 18 days, both the real property and the tenant’s personal property may be deemed abandoned.

Disposing of Abandoned Property

If you notify the former tenant and receive no response, you have one more step before you dispose of the property. Publish a notice in the local newspaper for a possible sale of items.

You must provide notice of the sale in a local newspaper with general circulation at least five days before the sale. The tenant may claim the property any time before the sale, but must pay for the costs of storage up to this point and the costs of advertising before reclaiming the property.

If the tenant does not claim the property in time, then you can sell the property at a public auction. After the sale, you can use the proceeds of the sale to pay for the costs of storing the property and advertising for the sale, but you must turn over any leftover money to the treasury of the county, where the tenant can claim the proceeds for up to one year after the sale.

If you believe the property is worth less than $700.00 collectively, then you do not have to sell the property. You can either keep it for your own use or dispose of it in any legal manner.

These 3 steps should guide you through dealing with abandoned property in California and give you a sense of what you may need to consider as you explore specific code in other states.

If you’re a CRES client and have a question about dealing with a former tenant’s property or any other issue, call the CRES ClaimPrevent® Hotline. The hotline is available to our clients 7 days a week to help with any issues that put you at risk. (And we guarantee a response within 4 hours or next business day, with recommendations confirmed in writing.)

What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced with a tenant?

This blog/website is made available by CRES Insurance Services for educational purposes to give you general information and understanding of legal risks and insurance options, not to provide specific legal advice. This blog/website should not be used as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed professional attorney in your state. Claims examples are for illustrative purposes only. Read your policy for a complete description of what is covered and excluded.

Originally Published October 24, 2018

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