Items left behind when tenants vacate
This can be a real problem. Landlords often cannot re-let until the property is cleared, but they do not have the right, legally, to deal with the items left behind as they do not belong to them.
The legal term is that the landlord is an ‘involuntary baillee’.
What is the correct course of action in these circumstances and how best can the terms of your tenancy agreement help you deal with this situation?
The Torts (Interference with Goods) Act 1977
The correct course of action is to serve a notice on the tenants, under the provisions of the Torts (Interference with Goods) Act 1977, giving the tenant information about the property held and giving them an opportunity (within a specified time limit – which must be reasonable) to collect them before they are disposed of or sold.
Because this procedure is provided for in the Act, it is arguable that any attempt in the tenancy agreement to circumvent it (for example by saying that the landlord has an absolute right to dispose of anything left behind without the need for any notice) will be considered to be unfair under the Unfair Terms rules (discussed on days 16 and 17).
This is no doubt very annoying for landlords, but unfortunately, it is the law.
A suggested procedure is as follows:
- Make it a requirement that when the tenants leave, they should remove all their own belongings from the property and provide you with a forwarding address
- Then say that if any items are left behind, you will remove and store them for one month (disposing immediately of any perishable or hazardous items).
- Say that you will then take reasonable steps to notify them
- If they do not remove their possessions within one month it is agreed that you may dispose of them and
- That the tenants are liable for the reasonable costs of this and that the costs of removal, storage and disposal may be deducted from any sale proceeds.
This should be reasonably safe from being found unfair (it is more or less what is said in the Government’s Model Tenancy Agreement), and you are following the provisions of the Torts Interference with Goods Act 1977. Plus they will be in breach of the terms of their tenancy agreement by leaving items in the property in the first place.
For your own protection, you should keep a list of everything that was left in the property and if it looks as anything it is valuable, get a specialist to provide you with a short valuation report. See the ‘horror story’ here which is based on a real case I dealt with in the mid 1990s.
The net proceeds of sale will belong to the tenant, but there is not a lot they can do if you offset it against money owed to you such as rent arrears.
One note of warning – if you think that tenants have left but their possessions remain in the property, be very careful about re-entering the property and changing the locks. Unless they have specifically told you that they are vacating.
The leaving of possessions indicates that they intend to return, and you may find that you are being sued for unlawful eviction.
NB Find out more about my Tenancy Agreement Service on Landlord Law.