Abandoned Personal Property

As a landlord of residential properties, can you throw away whatever tenants leave behind when they vacate the premises? The quick answer is no, you cannot simply discard someone else’s belongings, tempting as it may be. California Civil Code provides both forms and a procedure to clarify the rights of tenants and landlords. The law is quite specific about steps to take and the timeline to follow.

First, you must send a notice in writing to the last known address of your tenants, letting them know they left personal property behind and that you will either sell it, dispose of it, or store it, depending on the value of the property and your personal preferences. The notice must clearly describe the property and how the tenants can retrieve it.

If the property is worth more than $700, you cannot dispose of it. It must be sold at public auction or stored, and revenues are not yours to keep if you sell the property. Revenues go to the tenant or to the county treasury (minus the costs you incurred storing or selling the items).

When sending a notice to the prior tenants, I recommend delivering the letter in a way that allows you to verify delivery, via certified mail or with a return receipt. In addition to sending a hard copy, I’d send an email, too, if you have that information. If you do not have a forwarding address, consider sending the notice to the tenants’ last known employer or to a relative, if you have those addresses. This is one of those times you’ll be glad you took the time to create a good filing system, so you can, in fact, find your tenants’ original application with all sorts of helpful contact information.

It’s worth putting in some effort to reach the tenants, because otherwise you’ll have to go through the hassle and expense of selling their stuff at public auction, and even though you can deduct your expenses from the sale proceeds, it’s still a time-consuming pain in the neck. If you’d like help with the details of how to write the notice to the tenant, ask your Realtor. They can provide you with a copy of the Abandoned Personal Property Letter template referred to in Civil Code 1984.

While you’re waiting for the tenants to respond to your notice, what should you do with their personal belongings? After a couple days, most landlords want to get their property ready for the next tenants, so storing a bunch of junk isn’t too appealing. You can move the prior tenants’ belongings into the garage (if you have one) or into a secure storage unit. When you itemize the cost of storing those belongings, you cannot charge the opportunity cost of lost rent. That is to say, just because you cannot rent your property (because it’s full of the prior tenants’ belongings) does not mean you can charge the previous tenants the extra rent.
If the tenants do not claim their property quickly, and you decide to sell the belongings, you must first publish a notice of public sale in the newspaper, listing the time, place and a description of all items to be sold. The notice must run once a week for two weeks, with the last notice running five days prior to the sale.

If the tenants do claim their property, they cannot pick and choose what to retrieve. You can require them to take all their belongings. It is their responsibility to dispose of any unwanted items. If you have reason to believe that the items left behind do not belong to the tenant, but instead are lost or stolen property, you can always contact the police department.

If you have questions about real estate or property management, please contact me at rselzer@selzerrealty.com or visit www.realtyworldselzer.com. If I use your suggestion in a column, I’ll send you a $5.00 gift card to Schat’s Bakery. If you’d like to read previous articles, visit my blog at www.richardselzer.com. Dick Selzer is a real estate broker who has been in the business for more than 40 years.