Are you having a tough time reaching your tenant that is behind on rent? It’s possible they may have abandoned the property, but how can you be sure and what should you do? Let’s discuss the complicated situation where a tenant skips out and leaves some of their personal belongings behind. To find out whether your tenant abandoned your property or something else is going on, keep reading!
What qualifies as abandonment?
Before we get ahead of ourselves, it’s important to distinguish whether or not your tenant actually abandoned the property or if it just appears that way. The laws for determining whether or not a property has been abandoned vary greatly from state to state. In some states, like Missouri, there are four specific criteria that have to be met for abandonment to be claimed. On the flip side, in Utah, it’s much more cut and dry. Even if a tenant left property behind, if the landlord doesn’t know where the tenant is and rent is at least 15 days late, landlords can declare the space abandoned.
There is extreme variance in state laws on this subject. Because of that, we will provide general guidelines to determine whether or not the property may have been abandoned. Let’s say you get through these items and believe your tenant abandoned their residence. You’ll still need to consult your state law for proper steps to avoid legal trouble. In most states, the intent of the tenant determines whether or not a property is abandoned. (i.e. Did they INTEND to abandon it or did something else happen?)
Questions to Ask Yourself
Below are some questions you can use as a guide to investigate further and determine the status of the property. As a disclaimer, most of these questions alone will not surely conclude abandonment. Be careful and build as strong of a case as you can (using multiple streams of reasoning) to be undoubtedly certain.
Is your tenant behind on rent?
If not, regardless of the appearance of the property, almost no state will consider it abandoned. In this case, you’ll have to wait until rent is late (for the duration your state requires) before taking action.
Does the post office have any record of an address change or mail forwarding service requests?
Even if the tenant did change their address or forward their mail, that alone isn’t a good enough indication of intent to abandon the property. They could be out of town on business for an extended period of time and need their mail forwarded temporarily. Don’t make assumptions, but keep that information in your back pocket.
Can you reach any documented points of contact for your tenant?
When tenants apply to live in your property, you should require them to list back-up / emergency contacts. These individuals are likely the closest people to your tenant. If something is going on, they would be your best bet to find out. You may discover the reason your tenant is late on rent and not responding is because of circumstances out of their control. They may have gotten into an accident that put them in a coma. Or maybe they had to travel overseas last minute on business. These aren’t viable reasons to declare the property abandoned in most cases; they did not INTEND to leave everything behind.
Did they shut any of their property-specific services off?
If they canceled their cable, internet, utilities, etc., it’s usually a good indication they do not intend to return. However, this alone is not sufficient proof of abandonment, so just document it and keep investigating.
Did they leave a note?
It’s not uncommon for tenants to disappear and leave belongings to avoid embarrassment of being behind on rent. While landlords usually aren’t so lucky, if your tenant left a note, you’ll have a strong case to prove abandonment. This will allow you to move on quickly.
Declare the Abandonment
Before officially moving forward with any action (re-renting the property or disposing of belongings), you will need to declare the property abandoned, which typically requires public notice. To protect yourself, document all of the proof that lead you to the final conclusion. This could be copies of letters/notices you’ve sent the tenant notifying them that you believe they’ve abandoned the property. Or it might be signed statements from neighbors that the tenant moved out or discussed leaving in their presence. It could be a letter from the utilities company showing the last day the utilities were active under the tenant’s name. And it could be as simple as pictures of the property left in ruin. Either way, document as much as you can and declare abandonment before moving forward.
What can landlords do once abandonment is established?
To be protect yourself, going through a formal eviction process can often be the safest route. It’s not always necessary; however, if you have any doubt that your tenant may not have abandoned the property, following the eviction process is an added insurance policy.
Temporarily Store Personal Belongings
Once you establish abandonment, you can’t just go into the property and throw everything into a dumpster… unless you live in Colorado. Colorado is the only state that doesn’t require a landlord to hold the tenant’s belongings for a set duration. Once the property has been declared abandoned, these landlords can do as they please with the remaining belongings. In every other state, landlords have to make a reasonable effort to store the abandoned belongings in a place safe from damage or theft.
Though the duration in which they have to store these belongings vary state to state, it usually ranges from 10-30+ days. If the tenant comes to gather their items within that timeframe, you (the landlord) can typically ask them to cover the cost incurred to store the items before you give them back. If the tenant doesn’t pay for storage or doesn’t come back within that timeframe, you can usually do whatever you need to with the belongings. This could include, but isn’t limited to, keeping the property for yourself, selling it, or throwing them away. In some cases, the money earned from selling the abandoned belongings can help recoup costs of damages, clean-up, or even late rent that the security deposit didn’t fully cover.
Give Notice and Document
Again, the location of your real estate property determines the exact rules, so consult state and local laws before moving forward. And as always, keep full documentation of every step of the process including giving notice to your tenant that you will hold their belongings for a specific amount of time.
Moving these left-behind items to storage may cost you some money (especially if the items aren’t valuable enough to resell to offset costs later), but having the ability to re-open your property to a new renter is a big financial win. Most of the time, storage units are cheaper than what you’d be losing monthly on rent if you didn’t move the items.
To sum it all up quickly for you… be sure of abandonment before moving forward, protect your tenant’s belongings for the state-required duration, and document every step of the way to protect yourself from any legal trouble. Please keep in mind this article is purely informational. You should consult a licensed attorney if you need advice for a specific situation.