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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Common Issues in California Rental Property Management: Security Deposits

A landlord in California may obtain from the tenant, at the inception of the tenancy, a security deposit of up to two months’ rent for an unfurnished premises and up to three months’ rent for a furnished premises. The security deposit may be in addition to the first month’s rent charged in advance.

The landlord must hold the security deposit for the benefit of the tenant. The landlord may only deduct from the security deposit for unpaid rent, damage to the premises except for ordinary wear and tear, and cleaning the premises so as to return it to the same condition that it was in at the start of the tenancy.

Where one party terminates the tenancy (other than for breach of the lease or failure to pay rent), the landlord must give the tenant, within a reasonable time after notice of termination, written notice of the tenant’s right to an inspection and advance notice of deficiencies that could result in deductions from the deposit. The tenant must then request the inspection. If the tenant does so, the landlord must inspect and give the tenant an itemized statement of problems with the property’s condition so that the tenant has the opportunity to correct them prior to move-out. The parties then typically schedule a final walk-through where the landlord can check to see if the tenant has corrected the problems.

The landlord has 21 calendar days after the tenant vacates to give the tenant, by personal delivery or by first-class mail, an itemized statement showing all deductions from the security deposit and return to the tenant any unused portion of the deposit. For all deductions, the landlord must also provide supporting documentation such as invoices, bills, receipts, etc. If the landlord fails to account for the security deposit to the tenant, the tenant may sue for return of the deposit. If the tenant can show that the landlord’s retention of the deposit was in bad faith, the court may award the tenant a statutory penalty of up to two times the amount of the deposit.