It doesn’t matter if you own rental properties in Portland for one year, or 30 years, there will come a time when one or more of your tenants leaves things behind after they move out. The big question is what are you supposed to do with a tenants belongings after they move out?
In this article we will answer this question and provide you with some tips for how to handle this situation just so you will know what to do with your former tenants belongings within the confines of the law.
#1: Determine the Reason Why the Tenant Left
Depending on why the tenant left, you have certain guidelines you must follow—some of which allow you many freedoms, and others you have to be more careful about.
Lease ended or they gave you a termination notice: You have the most flexibly here because the tenant moved out of their own accord within their legal rights.
You served them a termination notice: If you followed the due process and gave the right number of days’ notice, more states also afford you maximum flexibility with your choice on how to dispose of the belongings.
Evicted: Things get dicey here. Depending on the state, you probably cannot simply put their belongings on the curb. There might be a more detailed protocol to ensure the tenant gets their belongings back. It’s likely local law enforcement will handle the eviction and documentation, including property removal, and they’ll inform you what you are entitled to sell to get compensation for unpaid rent.
Disappearance: If the tenant left without notice, their property has to be handled more delicately than those who have deliberately moved out. They still have rights to the property left on site and you cannot withhold personal property to get them to pay rent.
To add a layer of complexity, each state has different property laws on the landlord’s responsibilities for tenant property. We recommend getting acquainted with your state’s legislation before proceeding with removal.
#2: Survey the Property Left Behind
The tenant could have left a variety of things behind. Again, there are different rules for handling their discarded items.
Dealing with Garbage
If you find garbage in the rental, you can toss it. If there are perishables that are rotting or obvious trash laying around, you’re well within your right to throw it away.
Dealing with “Fixtures”
If a tenant installs anything to the walls that appears permanent and doesn’t remove them upon moving out (e.g. bookshelves, coat hooks, light fixtures), those kinds of items become fixtures of the unit. That means these additions become the property of the rental owner and do not have to be returned.
If there’s nothing in the lease agreement that says it’s the tenants’ responsibility to remove fixtures, it’s up to you to decide whether you want to keep them as part of the unit, or if you want to remove them. You don’t have to share your tenant’s taste in disco-ball inspired lighting just because it’s there. This is what the security deposit is for—you can use these funds to cover removal and damage.
Dealing with Motor Vehicles
Any kind of vehicle left on the premises, whether it’s perfectly functional or an inoperable junk car or even a scooter, should be handled through local law enforcement. State laws regarding abandoned property don’t apply to motor vehicles because they’re classified as a different category of personal property. Check out Arizona’s laws for example, for guidelines on what’s considered an abandoned vehicle and who to contact to get one towed.
Call the non-emergency number for your local police and provide the vehicle’s license plate number (if it has one), make, and model, and let them know where it’s parked. After concluding that it’s abandoned, the police will arrange to have it towed.
Dealing with Furniture and Other Personal Property
This is what you’ll most likely find left behind. You’ll have to follow a due process, and possibly get the local government involved depending on the total value of the abandoned property. Simply put, you’ll need to inventory the belongings, safely store them, and then either return, sell, keep, donate, or trash them after a certain amount of time.
#3: Itemize Abandoned Tenant Property
After any trash had been dumped, create a list of all of the items the tenant left behind and take photos of their condition—this will protect you from being liable for any damages claims. We suggest organizing this list with an inventory app. The Balance recommends Sortly because it allows you to organize items into folders, add eight photos per item, add a detailed description, and add a value.
#4: Securely Store the Property
You are not required to keep the property in the unit—especially if you’re preparing it for an incoming tenant. However, you do need a place to safely store the belongings. You can keep the property in a commercial storage unit or container, elsewhere on the rental property (e.g. a basement or garage), or even your own garage. In some states, you cannot store the abandoned property outside of the state, so we recommend finding a nearby storage unit. Pro tip: Get a neutral witness, like a neighbor to watch you move the items to a secure place.
If there are costs involved for removal and storage, keep a list of these expenses so you can be reimbursed through the security deposit, sale of the items, or by payment if the tenant claims the items. Itemize the costs and make sure they’re fair market value in case the state or tenant disagrees.
#5: Contact the Tenant Regarding the Abandoned Property
Part of your due diligence is to try to get in touch with the tenant regardless of how they vacated the rental. Refer to their application to get their last known address or any other relevant addresses on file—a cosigner or emergency contact’s address may prove helpful. Then you must deliver a written notice of the abandoned property either by hand or first class mail with a return receipt to the address(es) on file. You must make a reasonable effort to notify the tenant of the belongings, which many include delivering multiple notices.
The written notice should include the following details:
The itemized list of the property with images
The deadline for claiming the property (your state’s laws might specify a minimum time frame, typically 5-45 days depending on the value of the items, or you may have allowed more time than the minimum state requirement in your lease)
Where the property is stored
The charge for storing the property
Information regarding what you’ll do with the property if the tenant does not claim it (sell/auction, donate, keep, throw away, etc.)
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