What Should I Do When a Tenant Leaves Belongings Behind?
Both ‘Property Law’ and ‘Landlord and Tenant Law’ can be very complicated; both offer a lot of traps and problems for the unwary. One issue that we, at Hook & Partners, see coming up time and time again is that of personal property being left in houses when the possession of the home is transferred.
The two main occurrences where this poses a problem for our clients are:
- When a client buys a property and the seller leaves some items and/or goods in the house after they leave and hand over the keys;
- When a client is the landlord of a property and their tenants move out, abandon or are evicted from the property but leave some of their belongings behind.
So, what do you do when the previous tenant leaves items in your property?
The type of items can vary hugely, from a pile of clothes or a collection of food, through to furniture or white goods (like fridges and freezers). However, the questions we are asked are always the same:
- Do we have to look after them?
- Do we have to try to return them or can we just throw them away?
- Can we sell them?
For most people put in this position, the obvious solution appears to be to dispose of any unwanted items and forget about them. Unfortunately, the law does not allow you to do this. In fact, if you dispose of them without following the correct procedure, you could find yourself in a lot of trouble, and even having to replace goods at your own cost!
Once you find yourself in possession of goods belonging to another person, you become an ‘Involuntary Bailee’ and this means that there are statutory rules and obligations that must be followed.
What are your options if you are left with a previous tenant’s goods?
Under the Torts (Interference with Goods) Act 1977, once you are in control of another person’s goods, you;
- Must make efforts to return them to the owner;
- Must NOT deliberately or recklessly damage or destroy the goods
You must also serve a notice on the owner of the items to tell them that you currently have their goods and that they need to be collected.
The notice must set out the following information:
- Your name and address;
- A description of each individual item over which you have control. We recommend putting the state of each item in this description, such as ‘new’, ‘broken’, ‘dirty’ or ‘worn’ etc. to avoid being accused of damaging property later;
- The address at which the goods are being kept;
- A reasonable period in which the owner must collect their goods. There is no firm rule on this, but it should be ‘reasonable’ and the general legal opinion is at least 21 days;
- What you intend to do with the items should the owner fail to collect them within the period provided, and;
- Your contact details so that arrangements can be made for them to recover the items.
In order to serve the notice successfully, you must take reasonable steps to locate the owner of the items and ensure they have seen the notice.
Of course, this may sound very simple in theory, but it can often be far more difficult in practice. Often, especially when it comes to tenants, you simply may not have a forwarding address for the owners of the items.
Luckily, you don’t need to hand this notice to the item owner in person or ensure they receive a ‘hard copy’ themselves (although this is obviously the preferred option where it is available). In order to ‘serve’ the notice successfully, you need to show that you have taken ‘reasonable steps’ to locate the owner of the goods and get a copy of the notice to them.
Therefore, if you don’t have a forwarding address for the individual, there are other options for serving the notice. Most courts will be satisfied if you can take steps such as;
- Putting up a copy of the notice in the window of the property they had been occupying. We recommend taking a time-stamped photograph to prove you have done this.
- Emailing a copy of the notice to the owner.
- Taking photographs of the notice and sending them to the owner’s mobile.
What are your options for getting rid of the items?
Under the Law, as an ‘Involuntary Bailee’, once you have served the notice you are allowed to either dispose of or sell the owner’s goods if the owner fails to collect their goods within the reasonable period provided.
Disposal: This is very straightforward. Once the time stated in the notice has expired, if the goods haven’t been collected then you can throw them away. As long as you have made the necessary efforts to have the owner collect them and they have either failed to get in touch or collect their goods within the reasonable period specified in the notice, the courts should consider that disposal is judicious in the circumstances.
Sale: Once you have made the necessary efforts to have the owner collect the items and they have either failed to get in touch or collect their goods within the reasonable period specified in the notice, you also retain the right to sell the goods.
However, it is very important to note that an Involuntary Bailee is not allowed to profit from the sale of the items they are looking after. There is a legal obligation to account to the owner with the proceeds of sale (less any costs of sale, such as auction fees).
If you cannot locate the owner, then you must hold onto the proceeds of sale for a ‘reasonable period of time’ to allow the owner to make contact and collect. Unfortunately, this is true even where the previous tenant owes money to the Involuntary Bailee (e.g. rent arrears).
In circumstances such as these, it can seem tempting to sell the goods, especially if you are owed money by the previous tenant. However, for the reasons above, our advice is that you should avoid the temptation to sell the goods.
Selling the items increases (or at least prolongs) the legal obligations on you to try to contact the owner. It also carries the potential of the owner appearing at a later stage and issuing a claim against you for damages or replacement of the items - potentially even a criminal action in theft!
Obtaining Legal Guidance as an Involuntary Bailee
All of the above is provided as general guidance, but individual circumstances can vary hugely and so advice may differ from one situation to another. If you find yourself in possession of items left at a property you own, we strongly recommend seeking legal advice specific to your personal situation.
Our Property Law expert Russell Hook would be more than happy to guide landlords through your options and find the right solution for you. If you require dedicated legal guidance, from landlord and tenant disputes to residential property queries, contact our Canvey-based offices on 01268 692255 or email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.