Picture the moment: As a landlord you’ve parted ways with a tenant, the day has arrived for you to regain possession of your property. You unlock the door, hoping to find your property in good condition. So far so good, no major damage, but wait, the rooms aren’t empty!
It’s not unheard of to discover piles of rubbish left behind after a tenant has been evicted, including household waste and unwanted belongings. While most of this can be tipped, what are you supposed to do with a tenants personal items such as clothing, electrical goods, furniture, and even pets?
It’s important to understand that there are strict rules landlords must adhere to when a tenant leaves their personal belongings behind in a rental property. So, before you start creating listings on eBay or organising a garage sale, read on.
What Does the Law Say About A Tenant’s Abandoned Items?
Goods or “chattels” left behind in a rental property are protected by the Torts (Interference with Goods) Act 1977. In simple terms, this means you can’t dispose of them immediately, even if that would be the easiest solution to the problem.
Anything left behind by a tenant still belongs to them, therefore, removing such items is “unlawful” and could land you in a lot of hot water. Of course, as a landlord, you will be motivated to clear out the property and install new tenants as quickly as possible, which creates a dilemma.
The Torts (Interference with Goods) Act 1977 outlines your rights and those of the tenant in this regard.
Before we begin, here are two legal terms you need to know:
- Involuntary bailee – the landlord left with unwanted items they really don’t want or need and could do with getting rid of to make space for the next tenant…
- Bailor – the tenant in who left these items behind…
The good news is that you can dispose of any goods left behind, or sell them if the items have any value, but there is a strict protocol you must follow.
Landlords must take care of any uncollected goods. This means that the items left behind are the landlords responsibility and if the landlord doesn’t want to keep them, they have to be disposed of accordingly.
Goods must be stored in a safe place until reasonable steps have been taken to trace the tenant. This can either be at the rental property or in a separate location, such as a secure garage or shed, a storage facility, or your spare room.
Serve the Tenant A Schedule 1 Notice
A landlord must give notice to a tenant that he intends to dispose of any goods left behind in a property, as per Schedule 1 of the Torts (Interference with Goods) Act 1977.
This notice should be sent to the tenant’s current address (if known) as well as attached to the property, in case the tenant returns to collect his goods. It is sensible to stick the notice to the inside of a window adjacent to the front door, so it’s clearly visible if the tenant does come back.
The notice must contain the following information:
- The location of the goods
- If the goods are to be sold, the location of the sale
- Notification that sale and storage costs will be deducted from the proceeds of any sale, should one take place
- A list of items being stored
Notices must be sent via recorded delivery.
How Much Notice Should You Give the Tenant?
It is customary to give the tenant 21 days’ notice to collect their goods, but you are free to offer longer than that.
If you don’t have a forwarding address for the tenant, you must take reasonable steps to contact them. Speak to friends or family (if known) and reach out on social media (if you have their details). Another option is to try a tracing company on a no-find, no-fee basis. They will have access to official databases and are more likely to find the tenant. This type of service isn’t expensive, and you can deduct the cost from any money you make selling the tenant’s belongings if the tenant doesn’t claim them.
Not taking reasonable steps to contact a former tenant puts you at risk of civil action if the person subsequently accuses you of unlawfully selling or damaging their property.
When Can You Sell The Tenant’s Unclaimed Belongings?
If you’ve managed to get hold of the tenant and they give you permission to dispose of or to sell the items then you can go ahead. In this instance you’ll want to make sure you have a record of any conversation that’s taken place so the tenant can’t later accuse you of unlawfully selling or disposing of their items.
If you can’t get hold of the tenant or they haven’t given you explicit permission to sell or dispose of their belongings, then the bailee (landlord) can sell the uncollected goods if the following applies:
- The tenant has failed to collect their goods after the period specified in the Schedule 1 Notice (usually 21 days).
- The landlord is unable to contact the tenant because they left no forwarding address and any reasonable attempts to find them have been unsuccessful.
Who Pays the Costs of Selling a Tenant’s Belongings?
Storing the things your tenant has left behind, and ultimately selling them too, will likely incur fees. In the first instance you will need to pay these fees, but post sale you will be able to deduct sale and storage fees from the amount of money you make selling the belongings.
Who Gets the Money From a Sale of Abandoned Goods?
The proceeds from a sale of uncollected goods don’t go straight into your pocket. You must account for the money in a proper manner.
Deduct your costs from the sale proceeds (costs include storage, sale fees, etc.). If the tenant owes you money, this debt can be deducted from the remaining balance. Any money left over must then be returned to the tenant, yes, even if you still can’t find them. You must keep the money aside for the tenant for at least 6 years.
In practical terms, unless the tenant unwittingly left a Ferrari in the garage, there is unlikely to be much if any cash left over from a sale of goods after your costs and any money owed is deducted.
Dealing With Abandoned Pets
Sadly, some tenants abandon their pets along with their miscellaneous belongings. Depending on what type of pet you find and how the tenancy ended, this can either be an inconvenience or a total nightmare. It’s one thing walking in and spotting a hamster cage and quite another opening a bathroom to find a large boa constrictor lying in the tub.
Please note that the advice below only applies if you have followed the correct legal channels to evict a tenant or the tenant has given notice and moved out on the prescribed day. If a tenant has moved out but left pets behind, without a court order or a quit notice, the tenancy is still in place and you can’t gain access to the property. If the tenant is still taking care of his pets, seek legal advice, otherwise, call the RSPCA and report it as a cruelty case.
Pets cannot be left in the property alone for any length of time, as they will need to be fed, watered, and let out for toilet breaks (if applicable). Unattended animals may also cause property damage.
In the case of larger animals like cats and dogs, it’s best to call the RSPCA, the Cats Protection League, or a local animal charity. The respective organisation will usually arrange to collect the animal and take it into care. They might also pursue legal action against the tenant for pet abandonment.
Smaller animals, such as hamsters, rabbits, or fish, etc. can be temporarily fostered out if you know someone willing to take responsibility. You may wish to hang on to the pets until you know for certain the tenant isn’t going to ask for them back. If this is impractical, contact the RSPCA for advice or to arrange for collection.
Preventing Problems With Abandoned Belongings
As we’re fond of saying, prevention is always better than cure.
Make sure you ask your tenant for the contact details of a family member or friend, preferably before offering them a tenancy agreement. This makes it easier to chase them if they leave items behind when the tenancy ends or if you evict them.
Check your tenancy agreement includes a clause that clearly states items left behind will be disposed of or sold after 21 days.
Don’t give the check-out inspection a miss on the day your tenants are due to vacate. If you see there is still a ton of stuff left lying around, verify they intend to take it all with them and remind them of the consequences if they don’t.
Finally, a good tenant referencing system should prevent problems like this. If a tenant has done something similar to a previous landlord, it’s a fair assumption to think they could do the same to you.
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