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Avoid Problems With An Abandoned Rental Property

Has this home been abandoned or is the tenant coming back for the TV?

One of the trickiest issues for a landlord is determining that they are dealing with an abandoned rental property.  Has their tenant officially abandoned the property?

Abandoned rental property starts with the premise that an active lease is in place with ongoing contractual terms to be honored by both parties.  Sometimes, the tenant has stopped paying rent, moving the landlord to pursue collection.  There is still a lease in place though with protections for both parties.

Clues That You Have An Abandoned Rental Property

A tenant who has been ordered to pay or quit (move out) of a property  may leave the home with personal property.  Or maybe they are still coming back to finish removing items?  Since they no longer take your calls, it is a little tricky to know if the rental property is abandoned.

Before making a final decision on the status of the rental, consider the following clues.

  • Check with the utility companies.  Are the utilities on in the rental?
  • Have personal items of value been left behind?  Sometimes the value is obvious (electronics) but sometimes it may be less so (wedding albums or pictures).  Consider if the items are broken or difficult to move?  It may be likely the tenant has abandoned these items.
  • Check with a neighbor.  Did they see the tenant move out?  Have they seen the tenant recently?
  • Contact the Postal Service.  Has mail forwarding been requested?   Take a peek in the mailbox, if you can, to see if there is any mail stacking up.  Do not open any mail as that is a federal crime!
  • Contact the tenant's emergency contacts.  Hopefully these were obtained at time of application.  They may be able to assist you in making contact or giving you the answer.

Even if all signs still point to the property being occupied, a clear definition of abandoned previously agreed to with the tenant, might make it easier.

Address Abandoned Rental Property In Your Lease

Here is an example of how WILMOTH Group defines abandonment in our lease.

ABANDONMENT: If Tenant abandons the Premises or any personal property during the term of this
Lease, Owner may at its option enter the Premises by any legal means without liability to Tenant and
may at Owner’s option terminate the Lease.

Abandonment is defined as absence of the Tenants from the premises, for at least fifteen (15) consecutive days without notice to Owner. If Tenant abandons the premises while the rent is outstanding for more than 15 days and there is no reasonable evidence, other than the presence of the Tenants’ personal property, that the Tenant is occupying the unit, Owner may at Owner’s option terminate this agreement and regain possession in the manner prescribed by law. Owner will dispose of all abandoned personal property on the Premises in any manner allowed by law. 

The reality is that it is difficult to identify that a tenant has not entered the property in any window of time.  Some landlords rekey doors, forcing the tenant to contact them to gain access to their possessions.  Or the tenant just kicks in the door causing damages that will likely never be recovered.

Disposal of Personal Property

Be careful to know exactly what your state's law requires when it comes to disposal of personal property.  It is usually not just  allowed to be sent to a junk man.  Some hold time and possible postings are usually required if property is determined to exceed a certain stated value.

This is why the WILMOTH abandonment clause is limited to taking any and all actions allowed by law.  You need to know those rules before taking action.

How Are Your Tenants Late Payments Handled?

Do This If Tenants Are In Contact 

The ideal solution is to have all tenants execute a letter of abandonment.  While an unlikely event, it makes the transition much smoother from tenancy to occupancy.
I have been advised by our attorneys that the simple act of finding keys in our drop box is not satisfactory to determine that the property has been vacated.   If there are more than one tenant getting something signed by all the tenants, is the best option to start the clean-out, re-lease, process.
A side note, do not ever state that the tenant is cancelling the lease.  Unless you want to forfeit any future collection efforts for the remaining balance.  A request for an abandonment statement might include a cancellation of the lease.  Just understand what you are giving up to cleanly obtain back your property.

Keep Great Records

Be sure and document everything just in case you ever have to defend your actions.

  • Take lots of photos before and after clean out.
  • Keep records of who provided information and what was said to lead to the determination of an abandoned rental property.
  • Ask the utility company to provide a bill or statement showing deactivation of service.
  • Document any and all costs incurred through the process.

The one, most important lesson to take from this post is to be careful.  Don't assume you have an abandoned rental property.

In summary:

  1. Thoroughly check to determine if tenant has really abandoned the property.
  2. Have appropriate legal language in your lease and know your state laws.
  3. Document the how you came to your conclusion of abandonment and the condition of the property as you found it.

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