Common Issues in California Rental Property Management: Disposition of Tenant Personal Property Left After Conclusion of Tenancy

Your tenant vacates. You start the process of turning the property around but are astounded to find that the tenant has left behind a couple of car loads of his personal property. What do you do? Short answer: Be careful. Be very, very careful. The problem of seemingly abandoned tenant personal property occurs most commonly when the tenancy has ended on less than favorable terms, usually eviction. In my experience, tenants that leave property behind are the most troublesome ones and the most likely to re-appear in your life.

I have seen landlords and their insurance companies have to pay out big bucks to undeserving tenants because the landlord failed to follow the correct procedure for disposing of the tenants’ personal property. The rickety end table and orphan left tennis shoe may look like junk. And the tenant obviously didn’t care much about them. But that won’t stop the tenant from later claiming in his lawsuit that the flea market possessions which he left strewn about your rental property were really worth a king’s ransom. Follow the correct procedure and protect yourself.

If the tenant’s property is truly junk, the law allows you to keep or throw out any property that the landlord “reasonably believes” is worth less than $300.00 resale. In such a case, the landlord must serve the tenant with a notice, personally or by first-class mail, stating the landlord’s intention to throw out the property if the tenant doesn’t claim it within 15 days (18 days if service of the notice is by mail). The notice must be served on the tenant at the tenant’s last known address. I recommend to clients that they serve the notice at all known addresses for the tenant, including work addresses and relatives’ addresses written on the rental application.

If you do elect to throw out tenant property, make sure that you inventory and photograph the property. You must have a persuasive record of what property you threw out should the tenant come back at you later and claim that you threw away his valuables.

If the tenant’s property remaining on the premises likely exceeds $300.00 in value, the law provides a procedure for getting rid of the property that you must follow strictly. First, you must serve the tenant with a Notice of Right To Reclaim Abandoned Property. (I provide a form notice as part of a packet of forms that I give to my to landlord clients free of charge).

You may serve this notice on the tenant either personally or by first-class mail to the tenant’s last known address. To be safe, I also advise my clients to serve the notice on all known addresses of the tenant’s, including relatives listed on the rental application. You must also serve this notice on any other person, besides the tenant, that you believe may be the owner of the property.

The notice has strict content requirements relating to the description of the property and the place where the tenant may claim it and informing the tenant that he must pay the reasonable cost of storing the property before he can get it back. The notice must also state the deadline for the tenant to claim the property, which must be at least 15 days after the tenant is served with the notice (18 days if the notice is served by mail). The notice must provide the name, address, and telephone number of the landlord or his representative and a warning to the tenant that his property will be sold at auction if not claimed.

While waiting for the 15-day period to expire, I advise landlords to store the property at the premises if possible. If the tenant contacts them, I tell the landlords to set up a time for the tenant to come and get the property. When the tenant’s property is still at the premises, I tell clients not to bother trying to charge the tenant for “storage”. The reason that I tell clients to just let the tenant have his property is because the ensuing dispute isn’t worth the storage reimbursement. If the tenant shows up to claim his property and leaves without it, I guarantee you that the first place that he’s going after arguing with you over storage charges is straight into the open arms of the tenant attorney.

If the tenant has left so much property behind that it can’t be stored at the premises, such as the case where the tenant was evicted and didn’t move anything out beforehand, then you may have to move the property into storage. In such a case, the landlord is entitled to his moving and storage costs before he has to release the property to the tenant. I’m more inclined in such an instance to advise my client to stand on his rights to reimbursement before releasing the property because of the amount of expense, time, and trouble that the tenant has caused my client.

However, if the tenant does re-appear to claim his property, I advise clients to give the tenant an itemized list of storage and moving costs and supporting documentation. In any case where my client does release property to the tenant, I recommend that the landlord have witnesses to the tenant taking back his property and, if possible, that the landlord document the event with a camcorder.

So, what happens if the tenant does not claim his property within the 15 days? The property must be sold at public auction. Call an auction company. They’ll come and pick-up the property. An important point: once the auction date is set, make sure that you publish notice of the auction. Notice of the auction must be published once per week for two weeks in a newspaper of general circulation. If you fail to publish the notice, you are opening yourself up for liability to the tenant.

After the property is sold, the auction company takes its share, the landlord may be reimbursed for all costs of storage, moving and publishing notice. Any balance must be paid over to the tenant or, if he can’t be found, to the county.

As you can see, California law is complicated on this point. The best advice would probably be to just contact a lawyer if your tenant leaves behind any substantial amount of property. If the landlord follows the procedure, he’s protected from liability. If not, the landlord may have to bear the cost of an uninsured liability straight out of his own pocket.

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About howardfburns
I am a foreclosure litigation and landlord/tenant attorney in San Diego, California. I have been an attorney in San Diego, California for 23 years during which time I have represented landlords, property management companies, real estate investors, and secured creditors in hundreds of litigated cases. Howard F. Burns, Esq. Law Office of Howard F. Burns 8880 Rio San Diego Drive, Ste. 800 San Diego, CA 92108 (619) 243-1757 (Telephone) (619) 297-1497 (Facsimile) howardfburns@gmail.com (Email) www.lawofficeofhowardfburns (Website)

8 Responses to Common Issues in California Rental Property Management: Disposition of Tenant Personal Property Left After Conclusion of Tenancy

  1. gary rice says:

    good to know. i would have just tossed their crap out. learned alot.

    thanks.

  2. Afsoon says:

    Great article Howard 🙂

  3. Tom K says:

    This is a great article. Finally I can evict my tenants that have not paid me in a long time

  4. Tom Klimisch says:

    Finally I can evict my worthless tenants that have not paid me in months

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