Property Owners & Tenants Blog | All Property Management

What to Do If a Tenant Leaves Belongings Behind

| 4 min. read

When a tenant moves out, regardless of the reason, the turnover process can be a time-consuming and even expensive hassle for property owners. Every landlord wants a seamless transition between tenants, but what if a tenant leaves belongings behind? Dealing with abandoned tenant property can become a significant chore, from removal and storage to communicating with the tenant and deciding whether to return or dispose of the items. 

This article will guide you through the necessary steps needed to handle the situation if a tenant leaves belongings behind.

What To Do If a Tenant Leaves Belongings Behind: 4 Steps

Once a tenant leaves belongings behind, there are four important steps to take to ensure you’re handling the items properly. If you’re looking for an easy way to resolve the situation—and manage tenants in general—or simply don’t have the time to deal with tenants’ belongings yourself, a property manager can take care of left-behind items quickly and professionally.

If you’d prefer to manage the process yourself, follow these four steps:  

1. Inspect the Property

Before taking any action, conduct a thorough inspection of the rental unit to assess its condition and identify any abandoned property. Common belongings tenants leave behind include clothing, furniture, electronics, and other personal items. This inspection will help you determine the cleaning, repairs, or maintenance needed to prepare the rental for the next tenant.

2. Determine the Reason Why the Tenant Left

Understanding the reason behind the tenant's departure is essential as it affects how you should handle the abandoned property. Different scenarios, such as lease termination, eviction, or disappearance, require specific guidelines. 

  • Left after Providing Notice or Once Lease Ended. If the tenant's lease has ended or they provided a termination notice, you have more flexibility in handling the abandoned belongings since the tenant moved out of their own accord within their legal rights.
  • Left After Being Served a Termination Notice. If you served the tenant a termination notice following due process, you also have considerable freedom in choosing how to dispose of the abandoned belongings.
  • Evicted. Dealing with belongings left behind after an eviction can be more complex, as specific protocols may apply, and you might need help removing the belongings from the property. Local law enforcement may be involved in the eviction process and will inform you of your rights regarding selling items to recover unpaid rent.
  • Disappearance. If the tenant leaves without notice, you must handle their property more delicately. They still have rights to the property left on site, and you cannot withhold personal property to get them to pay rent.

3. Survey the Property Left Behind

During the inspection, you may encounter various items left behind by the tenant. Different rules apply to handling garbage, fixtures, motor vehicles, and furniture. Knowing how to deal with each type of ‘property’ will help you proceed effectively.

  • Dealing with Garbage. If you find garbage in the rental, you can dispose of it. For example, if rotting perishables or obvious trash are lying around, you’re within your right to throw them away.
  • Dealing with "Fixtures." If a tenant installs or mounts anything onto the walls that appear 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 nothing in the lease agreement says it’s the tenant’s 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 exactly what the security deposit is for—you can use these funds to cover removal and any damage.
  • Dealing with Motor Vehicles. Any vehicle left on the premises, whether perfectly functional, 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. Arizona, for example, provides guidelines on what’s considered an abandoned vehicle and who to contact to get one towed. Search online for similar resources for your own state.
    It is often advised to 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 tow it.
  • Dealing with Furniture and Other Personal Property. This is the type of property that is most likely to be left behind. You’ll have to follow due process and possibly get the local authorities involved depending on the total value of the abandoned property. Simply put, you’ll need to take inventory of the belongings, safely store them, and return, sell, keep, donate, or trash them after a certain amount of time.

4. Itemize Abandoned Tenant Property

After discarding any trash, create a detailed list of all the items left behind by the tenant. Take photographs of their condition to protect yourself from potential damages claims. Utilize inventory apps like Sortly to organize the list, add descriptions, and assign values to the items.

Check Rental Terms & Local Laws. To avoid legal disputes, it's crucial to understand both the terms outlined in your lease agreement and the local laws regarding abandoned property. Familiarize yourself with your state's legislation to ensure you follow the appropriate procedures.

Give Tenant Notice. Regardless of the tenant's departure circumstances, try to contact them and inform them about the abandoned property. Provide written notice, including an itemized list of the belongings, storage location, and deadline for claiming the property.

Top 3 Questions Landlords Face When a Tenant Leaves Belongings Behind

1. Can You Sell Abandoned Property?

Yes, depending on your state's regulations, you may have the option to sell abandoned property if it falls below a certain dollar threshold. However, following the appropriate procedures and using the proceeds to cover expenses, unpaid rent, and any damages is essential.

2. What If the Tenant Wants to Claim Their Property?

If the tenant claims their property within the specified time frame, you must make the belongings available for retrieval. Keep a record of the costs involved in storage and removal, which can be reimbursed from the security deposit or through payment by the tenant.

3. What If the Tenant Doesn't Want Their Property Back?

In cases where the tenant chooses not to reclaim their property, you may sell it at a public or private sale, donate it, keep it for the unit (partially furnished), or dispose of it appropriately.

5 Preventative Steps You Can Take to Ensure a Clean Move-Out

1. Screen Tenants to Find Responsible Renters

Conduct thorough background and credit checks to select tenants with a good track record of maintaining properties.

2. Write an Abandoned Property Clause in the Lease

Include an abandoned property clause in the lease to outline the tenant's responsibilities regarding their belongings and the consequences of not retrieving them.

Sample Abandoned Property Clause:

After the expiration or earlier termination hereof, if Tenant fails to remove any property from the Building or the Premises which Tenant is obligated by the terms of this Lease to remove within X (X) business days after written notice from Landlord, as required by the state of X, such property (the “Abandoned Property”) shall be conclusively deemed to have been abandoned, and may either be retained by Landlord as its property or sold or otherwise disposed of in such manner as Landlord may see fit. If any item of Abandoned Property shall be sold, Tenant hereby agrees that Landlord may receive and retain the proceeds of such sale and apply the same, at its option, to the expenses of the sale, the cost of moving and storage, any damages to which Landlord may be entitled, and to any arrears of Rent.

3. Send a Move-Out Checklist to Tenants

Before the lease ends, send tenants a move-out checklist, reminding them of the expectation to return the property to its original condition.

4. Set the Expectation of Withholding Security

Clearly state the expectation that you may withhold a portion of the security deposit to cover damages or removal of abandoned property.

5. Hire a Property Manager

Consider hiring a property manager to handle tenant turnover and the complex process of dealing with abandoned property.

Dealing with abandoned tenant belongings might be challenging, but you can manage it efficiently with proper knowledge and preparation. 

Remember, if a tenant leaves belongings behind, you can follow the appropriate steps to handle different types of abandoned property. Addressing abandoned belongings promptly and professionally protects you from legal disputes and ensures a seamless transition between tenants, creating a positive renting experience for both parties.

Part of every property owner’s responsibility is knowing your obligations and your tenants' rights, even when they've moved out and left belongings behind. Take preventative steps, such as screening tenants, including an abandoned property clause in the lease, and setting clear expectations for move-out procedures. Doing so can minimize the likelihood of encountering abandoned property issues in the future.

Handling the specifics if a tenant leaves belongings behind requires diligence, compassion, and adherence to local laws. Your proactive approach will save you time and money and foster a reputation as a responsible and caring landlord. So, the next time you encounter abandoned belongings, you'll be well-prepared to handle the situation confidently and professionally.

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