There are legally outlined steps that every landlord must take to deal with property left behind by tenants who have moved out. Any landlord should follow these steps in order to protect themselves from claims by the tenant who has moved out – claims that could allege the landlord destroyed or even stole the tenant’s property.
Many landlords are familiar with performing clean up and repairing damage to a unit after a tenant vacates voluntarily, or with aid of the sheriff or marshal. Often times, landlords must also deal with disposing of a pile of random personal items left behind. Sometimes the things left behind can be recognized as ordinary trash, so there is usually no problem with tossing it. However, be careful what you characterize as trash because something that looks like trash to you could be an expensive “vintage” item.
In some instances, the landlord may have a judgment against a tenant for unpaid rent or damages to the premises, and this tenant left behind valuable property that she never claims. In that case, the landlord can safely have the property sold and the money applied to pay the judgment, but only if the landlord follows the legal procedures outlined below.
First of all, a landlord cannot touch a tenant’s property until the landlord has legally gained possession of the premises. Gaining possession legally can mean when a tenant voluntarily leaves, whether or not she gives the landlord the keys, or when the tenant is physically evicted by the sheriff. If a tenant leaves personal property behind, and doesn’t demand his property then a landlord can face serious liability for disposing of the junk, unless the landlord uses a Notice of Right to Reclaim Abandoned Property. This is called for in Civil Code sections 1980 through 1991.
Action One: Inventory
A landlord must take an inventory of the abandoned property and write down a list of everything that is found. If there are containers left behind, just list the unopened container, do not open the container or locked trunk. A landlord may be able to get away with opening a container to check on the value of the property since the method of disposing of the property depends on the total value of that property.
Action Two: Decide the Value
A landlord must decide whether the value of the property is more than $300. Typically, you would judge the value by how much you think the item would go for at a flea market or garage sale.
Action Three: Notify the Tenant(s)
A landlord must send the former tenant(s) the Notice of Right to Reclaim Abandoned Property. There is no deadline for this like there is for an accounting of a security deposit, but the landlord cannot legally dispose of the property until this process begins with the notice. The Notice of Right to Reclaim Abandoned Property should list:
- The name of the tenant and any other person who could have an interest in the property
- The address of the premises
- A description of the property (“in a manner reasonably adequate to permit the owner of the property to identify it” per Civil Code section 1983(b)).
- A place where the property may be claimed.
- The value of the property; whether the property, in your opinion, is worth more or less than $300
- Your signature and date the Notice was mailed.
The Notice should be mailed to the last known address of the tenant. The postal service will forward the notice if the tenant left a forwarding address.
The landlord must surrender the property if the tenant contacts the landlord within 18 days after the Notice was mailed. Even if a Notice wasn’t mailed, the landlord must surrender the property within 18 days after the tenant has left where the tenant demands her property. Before returning the property, a landlord has the right to charge moving and storage costs, and any out-of-pocket costs the landlord incurs for renting storage space. If a landlord has a court judgment, in order to properly keep the property to have it sold and applied against such a judgment, the landlord must have the sheriff seize the property and auction it off.
If the former tenant or other owner of the property left behind doesn’t contact you within 18 days of mailing the Notice, you may keep, sell, give away, use or do anything else you wish with the property, IF it is all worth less than $300. If the property is worth more than $300, then you must arrange for the property to be sold at a public auction and then publish a notice in the newspaper announcing the auction. The ad must be published at least 5 days before the auction. You must also hire a licensed and bonded public auctioneer.
The ad must be in a newspaper of general circulation that has paid subscribers in the county. The ad must also describe the property in the same way you described it in the Notice of Right to Reclaim Abandoned Property. Proceeds are first used to pay reasonable costs of storage, advertising and sale. Anything left over goes to the county. To use the balance to satisfy a judgment against the tenant, a landlord must give the judgment and a Writ of Execution to the sheriff to levy the funds in the county’s control.
Following these procedures will protect a landlord from any liability in the event the tenant or other owner of the property left behind shows up later and sues for unlawful conversion of her property.