When A Tenant Abandons Your Property

You have just driven by your property. There's something different about it. There's usually at least one car in the driveway, a dog on the porch, and a bicycle or two on the lawn. 'Maybe the tenants are on vacation', you tell yourself. On the other hand, you've been in the property management business long enough to know that you should follow up a hunch. What you do next must be wisely considered.

The Evidence

  • Don’t just pull out your key, open the door, and walk in. Don’t peek in the windows. Don’t rifle through items in the mailbox.
  • You must first establish that the tenant truly has abandoned the property. The requirements for considering a property to have been ‘abandoned’ differs from state to state. Be sure to meet your state’s criteria.
  • Call, email, and/or text the tenant, if no answer..
  • Ask any nearby neighbors if they have recently seen your tenant, if not..
  • Call the utility companies to see if the tenant made a request to turn them off, if not..
  • Is it possible that your tenant is simply away on vacation, is in hospital care, is in prison, or is otherwise legitimately absent from the property rather than having intentionally abandoned his/her legal obligations and your rental property?
  • If the tenant has paid the rent, even if s/he is no longer occupying the property, then it cannot be considered abandoned.
  • If you still suspect that your tenant has abandoned your property without giving you notice, it is essential that your next choices meet the ‘letter of the law’ for your particular state.

The Law

  • What are the relevant statutes in your state’s Property Code?
  • Are you legally entitled even to knock on your tenants door without first giving prior notice of a visit? That, of course, depends upon whether or not you have met your state’s legal criteria for declaring the property ‘abandoned’.
  • In some state Property Codes, such as Texas, ‘abandonment’ is not defined, thus it may not be defined in the Residential Property Lease either.
  • Under what circumstance may you legally enter the building? Are you sure? This right is not based on what you feel is fair, but on what the law permits.

Your Lease

  • Your legal rights as a landlord, as given by your state's Property Code, may only be as good as the legal wording of your Residential Lease Agreement with your tenant.
  • Does your lease agreement stipulate - in bold and underscored words - exactly what steps you will take if the tenant abandons your property without notice?
  • Does the wording of your lease precisely correspond to State and Federal legal regulations?
  • If your state’s Property Code does not define ‘abandonment’, does your lease define it? If not, a tenant may have more legal maneuvering room if they see an opportunity to bring a suit against you.

Cover Yourself Legally

  • Once you are clear on what you can and cannot do legally…
  • Keep a written record of each step that you have taken, including exact times of each phone call, the name of each person spoken to, details about the information/evidence gathered.
  • When you are legally permitted to enter the property, if it is clearly abandoned and all items belonging to your tenant have been removed, complete a full inspection, taking pictures of anything that should be the tenants financial responsibility.
  • If the tenant has left furniture as well as personal items behind, a different set of legal obligations come into play.

If Tenant Has Abandoned Your Rental Property AND Has Left Personal Property Behind:

  • However reasonable it may seem under the circumstances, 'their' property is still 'their' property - at least until you have met the specific legal obligations designated by your state in the removing, storing, disposing and/or the selling of abandoned property.
  • Take pictures of all their ‘abandoned’ property just as you found it.
  • Make a list of the items. This does not include items that are obviously trash.
  • Attempt to contact the tenant, sending the detailed list to all addresses the tenant has provided as contacts. Let the tenant know what you plan to do with the items and when you will act on your plan.

IMPORTANT: it is always advisable to contact your attorney in these circumstances to make sure that you are in harmony with all state laws. Missteps in this process, in some states more than others, can be costly - adding ‘insult to injury’.