How to handle an abandoned property

Carla Toebe
Carla Toebe | 5 min. read
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Published on February 17, 2012

They say that abandonment is a landlord’s or property manager’s worst nightmare when dealing with a tenant. How do you know it is really abandonment? Sometimes it’s obvious when everything is gone, the place seems perfectly empty, and the tenant’s keys are lying on the counter. But what if the place is full of furniture, the food is still in the cupboard, and you can’t get a hold of them? They haven’t paid their rent, they haven’t returned your phone calls, no one has seen them, and you can’t get a hold of anyone on the emergency contact form you had them complete when they moved in. Surely this means they must have abandoned the place. So you change the locks, and uh-oh! There they are coming back claiming you have now burglarized their place. Oh no! This can’t be, they clearly abandoned the place and you took all the steps you had to take that were required by law.

Maybe it isn’t that clear cut. Maybe a tenant still has some rights. Now you are facing penalties, a criminal investigation, and a whole slew of troubles you never knew you had. Let’s back up and figure out how to determine that this is really abandonment and you have the right to take possession of your unit.

You spelled out what abandonment was with your tenant and you had it written in the lease, right? Good, well at least you tried to get the tenant on board with your ideas. Unfortunately they have forgotten about your request for them to tell you they have left, and to turn in their keys. That would be the easy thing to do. However, they don’t want you to know they have left because they are in a hurry, that they are embarrassed that they have to leave owing rent, or that they had to leave things such a mess. They may not want to face you or deal with any of these responsibilities. Maybe they could have left a note telling you to dispose of everything there, and that they are not coming back.

Why didn’t they think of these things for you? Unfortunately abandonment isn’t always so sweet and simple. Usually you have to determine without any doubt and with full public notice of some sort that you intend to declare the place abandoned. You also have to hold onto any property left for so many days prior to disposing or selling it. Each state has their own set of laws and it is very important to become familiar with the particulars of the process to establish abandonment because that tenant could come back. Now you are now expected to return everything that you just disposed of because you thought it was left behind.

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Write your abandonment process down if you haven’t already so that tenants, anyone who works for you taking care of the units, and owners who are hands on, consistently follow the appropriate process. Make sure that your complete process complies with the state laws. It may be helpful to have an attorney review it.

Typically in order to establish abandonment, the tenant must be late on the rent and they must have not responded to a 3 day notice to pay or quit that you mailed and put on their door. They have also not responded to an abandonment notice that you put on their door for all to see after 48 hours. What if they are just gone for 5 days and forgot to pay rent? Well you need to start calling their personal phone numbers, work numbers, relatives, friends, neighbors, and anyone you can think of that might know them in order to validate that they are really gone. You need to check and see if their vehicles have been parked there at all during this time. You also need to check with the utility companies to see if any service has been disconnected. In other words, ask around, do some investigating, and document all that you have done.

Once you are inside because the evidence all points to the fact that they have abandoned the unit, take a picture of that abandonment notice still stuck to the door and a picture and/or video of everything inside that has been left behind. Carefully store all items that are clearly not garbage and place it into a safe secure location for the length of time required by law. I don’t know how many times I have seen someone dump everything outside for all bargain hunters in the neighborhood to come around and clear away. Do not fall into that temptation as appealing as it sounds! It is the worst thing to do and it is not worth the potential harm that a little effort would prevent. Do the right things, know the laws, and know what the process should be.

If you are a tenant, please let someone know that you have left. If you don’t, it will cost you more money in the long run than it would have if you just let your landlord or property manager know when you left the property. Avoid getting into legal troubles over abandonment, turn in your keys and leave a note!

Read more on Maintenance & Improvements
Carla Toebe

Carla Toebe owns and operates CT Realty LLC in Richland, Washington.

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