How to Handle When Tenants Abandon a Property

messy apartment with abandoned property

Most landlords will have to deal with the aftermath of tenants abandoning their rental property at least a few times during their real estate investment career. When this happens, it is important for property owners to follow the laws of their state related to abandoned property to ensure they do not find themselves in any legal trouble. Consult with a real estate attorney for proper guidance in dealing with this situation.

How to Know Whether a Tenant Has Truly Abandoned a Property

Each state sets its own laws regarding when landlords can consider the property they rented out officially abandoned. For example, a tenant has legally abandoned rental property in California if the following two conditions are present:

  • The property owner or the tenant has terminated the rental agreement. This can occur when the landlord evicts a tenant, or the tenant moves out unexpectedly before the lease has expired.
  • The tenant is no longer physically present in the rental unit, even if some of their personal property remains.

Unfortunately, it is not always easy for property owners to know that a tenant has officially moved out. Here are some indications to look for that point to the tenant no longer living at the rental property:

  • The tenant completed an official change of address form and arranged for shut-off of utilities.
  • Neighbors report seeing a moving truck near the tenant’s rental property recently.
  • The emergency contact person listed on the tenant’s rental agreement reports that the person has left the property.
  • The rental unit does not have any valuable items in it, such as computers, furniture, or other electronics. Most people will not leave expensive items behind when they abandon a property, even if evicted or terminating the lease early.

Property owners should keep in mind that they cannot assume a tenant has moved out because of past due rent. Several states do not allow landlords to consider a rental property abandoned if the tenant is current on rent despite no one having seen or heard from him or her in weeks.

Steps Landlords Must Take When a Tenant Abandons Rental Property

If all signs indicate the tenant no longer lives in the rental unit, the property owner must send an official document requesting that the tenant indicate whether they have officially moved out. Most state laws indicate that landlords can consider rental property abandoned when they do not receive a response to their request within 10 days.

The next step for property owners to document tenant abandonment is to take pictures of anything that would prove it. Such evidence would include photos of empty rooms in the rental unit. Landlords should also record all conversations with the tenant’s contacts and document their rent payment history.

Even when property owners have demonstrated tenant abandonment, they cannot sell the renter’s personal belongings right away. They must defer to state laws that require them to store the items for a certain period of time before attempting to sell them.

Tenants who do respond to the letter requesting official notice of their vacancy have 30 days to collect their belongings. Landlords can only keep funds that cover storage fees. Also, they must remit the remainder to the tenant if they are able to locate the person.

Landlords may only keep the proceeds from selling the tenant’s belongings if they are unable to contact them. Furthermore, the must wait for a response to their official request within 30 days.