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What Should You Do If a Tenant Abandons the Property?

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What Should You Do If a Tenant Abandons the Property?
5 min. read

Image: fizkes / Shutterstock.com

Leasing your property out to a tenant is a great way to bring in extra cash for space that you’re not using. It’s not always easy, but with a great tenant, things can work out well for everyone. However, what happens when things don’t go to plan? 

One issue you might come across as a landlord is tenant abandonment. All of a sudden the bills are no longer being paid, your calls aren’t being answered, and it seems as if your tenant has disappeared from the face of the earth. So, what should you do if a tenant abandons your property? Let’s find out below.

Make sure that the property really is abandoned

Tenants don’t tend to let their landlords know that they’re about to leave them hanging, so this may be a bit tricky. The first thing you should do is to make sure that the tenant has indeed abandoned the property. The clearest sign that the tenant has skipped town is rental payments that are more than 14 days overdue.

You might also want to talk to the neighbors and ask for any signs indicating that your tenant has been gone a long period of time, or if they’ve actually seen them moving out. Eventually, you’ll need to enter the premises to check for clues: empty refrigerator and closets, personal belongings that have been removed, or utilities that have been shut off are signs that your tenant has moved out. However, make sure that you’re not breaking any laws regarding renter’s rights in your area, and check with an attorney to be sure.

Notify the tenant

Once you have established that the property really is abandoned, your next step as a landlord is filing a Notice of Belief of Abandonment. This is a legal document outlining the reasons you believe the property has been abandoned, an itemized list of any belongings left behind, as well as applicable deposit deductions. The notice must be sent to the tenant at their previously recorded address. Once submitted, the notice gives the tenant 18 days to get back to you in order to discuss future arrangements and solutions.

Asses any damage

It is important to make notes on the state of the property after it has been abandoned, and take photos that can later be used, should complications arise. Document any damages done to the property, from broken windows and cracks in the wall to furniture that has been destroyed. If you notice any missing items, such as appliances and other household amenities, add them to the list as well. Assessing if and how much damage has been done to the property will later help you determine how much you can deduct from your tenant’s deposit.

Secure the property

Move in and start securing the premises, such as changing the locks or the alarm codes on the security features you have installed. It’s good to bear in mind that any items the tenant has left behind fall under your responsibility. You are required to secure the tenant’s property for the duration of the 18 days stipulated in the Notice. Whether you decide to keep this within the rental space or in a separate storage facility is entirely your choice. However, there are some exceptions, depending on the nature of the property. Food or other perishable items can be disposed of without any legal repercussions. If your tenant has left a pet behind, you will need to reach out to an animal control agency or humane society for assistance. Clothes, furniture and appliances will need to be stored until the due date, in order to avoid any liability.

Handling the tenant’s abandoned belongings

If your tenant has not responded to your Notice after 18 days and has made no claim on their property, you can now safely think about disposing of it, whether it’s selling, throwing out, or simply keeping it. Always check if there are any state regulations regarding the way abandoned belongings are handled. In some cases, if the value of said items exceeds a certain amount (such as $300, in California), you will need to sell them at a public auction. If the tenant has made any changes to fixtures in the rental home, such as installing a bookshelf, the fixtures become part of the rental, and the tenant cannot claim them back. Motor vehicles also have their own regulations, so it’s best to check with the local police before deciding to have your tenant’s car towed away.

Collect the deposit

The tenant’s security deposit is meant to protect the landlord or owner in case of property damage, unpaid charges, as well as tenant abandonment. Most tenants abandoning the property also forfeit their deposit as a result, and you can use that to pay any overdue utility bills, storage fees for the tenant’s property, as well as repair any damage done to the premises.

Talk to a lawyer

If you’re worried about potential problems with your runaway tenant, it’s best to discuss with a lawyer, and see what your options are. For example, a tenant can leave expensive property behind, and then claim that you have stolen it. Or, if they have kept the key, they may return in the future, and cause damage to the rental space. A lawyer can also help in cases where the security deposit may not be sufficient to cover the expenses associated with the tenant abandoning the property, and as such, it could see you and your former tenant meet in the small claims court.

Most tenants who abandon a property don’t plan on coming back, but if they do, it’s best to be prepared. It can be tempting to just change the lock, sell what they left behind, and cash in the security deposit to make up for it. Yet you might want to avoid liability by giving them proper notice, and also complying with state regulations when it comes to their belongings. Last but not least, make sure you are protected as a landlord, both through a good lease agreement, as well as screening your tenants beforehand.

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