The answer is a resounding, “Yes!” Landlords can most definitely take over abandoned property.
The real question, though, is how?
Even if you have a signed lease with your tenant, they don’t always stay the entire lease term. Things happen:
- Maybe they could no longer afford rent.
- They found a better job elsewhere.
- They are in jail.
- They are in the hospital.
Whatever the reason, if your tenant left without telling you, they have left you with an abandoned property.
It’s never a good idea to have an abandoned property. For one, you’re probably not collecting rent. You can sue your ex-tenant for rent until you find a new tenant—that is if you can find your ex-tenant.
Another reason abandoned property is not good is that it opens your property up to the possibilities of squatters, vandals, water damage, and fire.
Related: Risks of leaving a property vacant
I have a clause in my lease that states what happens if the tenants will be gone for just seven days:
Extended Absences by Tenant
Tenant agrees to notify Landlord in the event that Tenant will be away from Premises for seven consecutive days or more. During such absence, Landlord may enter the Premises at times reasonably necessary to maintain the property and inspect for damage and needed repairs.
There is no question that you can and should take control of your abandoned property, but you can’t just start re-keying and tossing out your ex-tenants’ belongings.
Your tenant might have left but had every intention of returning to the property. If you took possession in that instance, your tenant could claim wrongful eviction, and you might need to pay damages.
Here’s what to do if you suspect your tenant abandoned your property.
Determine whether the property is truly abandoned:
Unless your tenant told you they were moving out early, you can’t necessarily be sure they abandoned the property just because no one’s been home for a few days or even weeks. Assuming they abandoned the property is not the same as knowing they abandoned the property. Here are some ways to tell.
1. Your tenant is still paying rent
If your tenant continues to pay rent, even though they haven’t been living there for a while, it means the place is not abandoned. In this case, it’s best to contact your tenant to find out what’s going on. If they are away for an extended time, let them know that you or your representative will need to check on the place every week or so until they return. It’s unsafe to leave a property vacant. If your tenant has stopped paying rent and is gone, they might have abandoned the property.
2. Speak with the emergency contacts
This is one of the times to call the emergency contacts listed on your application. Let them know your concerns and ask if they know whether your tenant has moved out.
3. Ask the neighbors
Maybe one of the neighbors saw your tenant moving out.
4. Check to see whether the utilities are off
Give your tenant 24-hours’ notice that you will come in. If you hear back, you can ask what’s going on. But if you don’t get a response, come over and check all the utilities. If they are off, it’s a sign the place might be abandoned.
5. Check for garbage and old food
If the place has old garbage and rotting food in it, you have found another sign that your tenant might have abandoned the property.
What to do with abandoned personal property left behind
If there are valuables such as clothing and furniture still in the unit, the place might not be abandoned. But then again, it might. In this case, you need to get in touch with the tenant. Notify them to pick up their property by a certain date. If they don’t get it by that date, let them know that you will dispose of it, donate it, or keep it for yourself.
Once you determine the place is abandoned:
If your tenant has stopped paying rent, their emergency contacts told you your tenant has moved, the utilities are off, and nothing is left in the rental, you can probably determine that your tenant abandoned the property. Here’s what to do.
1. Send a letter
Send your tenant a letter notifying them they have 10 days to let you know whether they have abandoned the rental unit. If you have not heard from them, you will declare the property abandoned.
2. Take photos
Take photos of the property that demonstrate why you think the place has been abandoned, such as lack of furniture or an overgrown lawn.
3. Document and describe the situation
Document the reasons you believe the place has been abandoned, such as not receiving rent or finding that the utilities have been turned off. Note the date of the last rent payment you received.
4. Record your conversations with the neighbors
Keep a record of any interviews you had with emergency contacts or neighbors.
5. Use USPS certified mail
Send all communication to your tenant through certified mail to prove you tried to contact them about whether they have moved and about picking up their belongings.
It’s never fun to find that your property has been abandoned. Your job now is to mitigate your losses by doing something about it. Take back your property as soon as possible, but make sure you do so the right way.
It’s best to have a lease clause that addresses abandonment issues. But whether you have such a lease clause or not, take the necessary steps to document your reasons for taking back your property.