If your tenant moves out and leaves items behind, state and local laws govern what you can do with the abandoned property. So, before you sell your prior tenant's television, it's important to learn about your legal obligations.
Lost vs. Abandoned Property
Before making any plans, make sure that your tenant has abandoned -- not lost -- a piece of property. If you find a ring in a medicine cabinet, for example, it's possible that the item was misplaced and not abandoned. In this case, you have an obligation to attempt to contact the previous tenants so the ring can be returned.
If the tenants cannot be found, but it is likely that the item was lost, the landlord may have to relinquish the item to the local police or sheriff. However, if it's likely that the property was abandoned, the owner will be able to keep, sell, or dispose of any items according to state law.
Most states require that you notify the tenant that he or she has abandoned items on your property. Unless state statutes specify otherwise, a certified letter is often the best way to complete this step. The letter should list the items that were abandoned, as well as tell the former tenant how to claim them and the time period in which he has to do so.
Waiting Periods and Storage Requirements
States with notification requirements will also specify how long you must wait before disposing of any items. These time periods can vary widely. Delaware state statutes require a seven-day waiting period to allow tenants to claim abandoned property after an eviction, while Vermont requires that a landlord wait 60 days.
Most states will also allow you to charge a reasonable storage fee that the tenant must pay before his or her items are returned. Some states will also allow you to charge a removal fee. If you intend to charge these fees, you should specify the amount in the notification letter you send.
Abandoned Property Disposal
Even after the waiting period has passed, state laws will specify what you can do with abandoned property. Some states will allow you to sell, destroy, or keep any items. Other states require that landlords hold a public sale for any items that exceed a certain monetary value.
Some states -- including California, Florida, Connecticut, and Wisconsin -- specify that any profits from abandoned property sales must be remitted to the state or town government. State law may also allow the tenant to claim any proceeds from the sale of his or her property, as long as the claim is made within a certain time frame. Other states require a public sale, but will allow you to keep the proceeds after a waiting period.
If your prior tenant still owes you money, the state statute may allow you to deduct the amount owed from the proceeds of any property sales. Hawaii, Kansas, and Maine all allow landlords to deduct back rent from an abandoned property auction's profits.
Researching State and Local Laws
Before removing any possessions from a rental, you must research your state and local laws thoroughly. Most state websites have the applicable statutes published online. If you don't follow your state's laws, your tenant could sue you for damages.
When researching laws, be sure to follow the correct guidelines. Statutes may distinguish between property abandoned during an eviction versus property that was left after a tenant voluntarily moved out. Residential and commercial rental property may also be governed by different laws. Some cities have local laws that supersede state law.
To avoid any problems, landlords should document their actions carefully and keep any pertinent records. This documentation should include a copy of the notification letter and receipts for any costs associated with selling and/or storing the abandoned property.
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