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What happens when tenants move out and leave personal belongings behind?

One question that arises is whether the tenant has actually moved out. Even if a tenant's Lease Agreement expired, a holdover tenant may still be protected by housing laws.

For example, if all of the tenant's belongings remain after the lease expired, they may not have legally moved out. You may charge them rent, or file for eviction, but you may not dispose of their belongings. The same principle applies under an Eviction Notice. Until the sheriff enforces the writ of possession or whatever the final eviction step is in your area, the tenant may still have legal possession of the rental unit.

Whether the tenant has relinquished legal possession of the rental unit is a question subject to local laws. It can depend on what they left behind, the value of their property, the timing of your last contact, and whether they returned the keys. You may simplify the process by making a Move-Out Checklist. Once a tenant has legally moved out, you may determine whether property left behind has been abandoned.

When is property considered abandoned?

If you do not have a formal handover such as a final walkthrough, this can be a judgment call based on the possessions left behind. If possible, talk to the tenant to see if they accidentally forgot something or plan to come back. If this is not possible, that may be sufficient to demonstrate the property has been abandoned. A Pre-Rental Inspection Checklist can help determine whether items were left behind or they were there at move-in.

If a tenant leaves unexpectedly, you may consider whether they stopped paying rent, shut off utilities, or removed some of their belongings. Some states presume a rental unit and the property inside are abandoned after a certain number of days. In Florida, property is abandoned if the tenant is absent for more than 15 days without prior notification. In Tennessee, abandonment occurs after 30 days if the tenant has paid rent and 15 days if they have not. Lease Agreements may also set a timeframe.

How long must a landlord keep abandoned property before disposal?

Most states give a week or two. Indiana is the longest at 90 days. It may depend on whether the lease ended or there was an eviction. For example, Georgia does not require a landlord to store a tenant's property after a court ordered eviction.

In most cases, a landlord can charge reasonable fees for storing property and moving it from the rental unit. It is a good practice to use professional movers and a commercial storage unit to avoid property damage. Lease Agreements may address plans for abandoned property and related fees.

Do landlords need to give notice before removing personal property left behind?

Landlords may issue a Notice of Abandoned Personal Property before disposal of a tenant's personal property. If you contact the tenant immediately, they might remove the property or tell you to dispose of it. If the latter, it is smart to obtain written confirmation. If moving items into storage, it is a good idea to inform the tenant of potential charges.

When a state requires a landlord to store a tenant's property, the landlord must notify the tenant before the clock starts ticking. If you intend to apply the security deposit toward storage or disposal costs, you may need to meet a state deadline for making a claim against the security deposit.

What can landlords do with abandoned property?

If a tenant abandons property, it is a good idea to retain it for the amount of time required under the law in your area. Depending on the state, you may keep abandoned property, give it away, or sell it. In some states, the abandoned property must be sold at a public auction and proceeds go to cover the costs of storing, moving, and auctioning the property. Any remaining funds must be given to the tenant or turned over to the state as unclaimed property.

Landlords might also make alternative arrangements with tenants. For example, if a landlord knows a tenant is having trouble moving items, you may offer storage space for a fee. Similarly, if a landlord has been holding a tenant's abandoned property as required by law, and the tenant asks for more time to retrieve their belongings, the landlord can negotiate a fee to extend the storage time. If you do this, it is a good practice to sign a separate Storage Space Lease Agreement.

Just like an eviction, handling a tenant's abandoned property the wrong way can expose you to legal liability. If you are unsure how to proceed with abandoned property, reach out to a Rocket Lawyer network attorney for affordable legal advice.

This article contains general legal information and does not contain legal advice. Rocket Lawyer is not a law firm or a substitute for an attorney or law firm. The law is complex and changes often. For legal advice, please ask a lawyer.

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