I got caught out by this vicious little hurdle in the past. I’m not even going to sugar coat it, it’s simply stone-cold infuriating and frustrating. It’s one massive ball-ache.
A couple of years ago I had a tenant leave behind a whole mountain of his possessions, which I could only consider to be a hefty pile of useless shit. It was pretty amazing how a room (and loft) full of someone’s personal possessions could amount to such little value. It mostly consisted of dusty old worthless books, old unfashionable cloths, flimsy furniture that was falling apart, hundreds of old-school VHSs, and crazy amounts of children’s toys. Absolute pile of shit.
Unfortunately, the law doesn’t work in the landlord’s favour in these circumstances, despite the little (or large) monetary value, inconvenience and utter uselessness of the remaining items, because they don’t legally belong to us, and they could be valued by
some other inconsiderate idiot the tenant. You know what they say, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure”
Although, in reality, it’s almost always trash, no one leaves behind items of any reasonable value. In most cases, what remains is the junk the tenants were simply too lazy to dispose of themselves. But of course, we’re not allowed to make that assumption… despite when it’s so obviously the case. Annoying.
What the law says landlords should do
This is where landlords really get screwed over.
The Torts (Interference with Goods) Act 1977 is what governs this particular situation, and it stipulates that landlords are required to make reasonable efforts to contact the tenant in order for them to return their possessions. Until then, we are under a legal obligation to take care of the tenant’s possessions.
This can be extremely problematic for landlords, because we usually need to clear the property for new tenants, which means we have to transfer the remains and store it somewhere else. Bearing in mind, it’s generally ALWAYS junk that the tenant doesn’t even want. But until we receive confirmation from the tenant, we can’t legally dispose of it straight away.
It wouldn’t surprise me if some tenants leave their useless shit behind as part of a deliberate scam, just so they can seek compensation when an unsuspecting landlord decides to dispose of the junk without confirmation. On that basis, I’d be very careful about disposing any items without following the proper procedure.
The whole situation can get kind of messy, but I’ll try to cover the most common scenarios…
Notifying the tenant
Often landlords will have a forwarding address for the tenant, or their phone number or email address.
In many cases, the situation can get solved over a simple phone call and/or text messages. Either the tenant will agree to collect/remove the items, or give the landlord the go ahead to dispose of the items (the latter can be terribly inconvenient). However, if they’re unresponsive or being difficult, you should serve a written notice by recorded delivery stating the following:
- You have intention of disposing the possessions if they are not collected with in the expiry of the notice. You are obliged by law to give a reasonable period of notice, commonly 21 days
- Instructions on how the tenant can arrange collection with you
- If there is any possessions of value, you can state that you have intentions of selling them if they are not collected by the expiry of the notice. In this case, all the proceeds belong to the tenant (up until six years after the sale), but any costs incurred such as storage, removal and sale are deductible.
Be warned, the law expects the landlord to obtain the best price they can for the items. Ridiculous, right? We essentially become their personal pawn shop. The tenants get a sweet deal.
It’s important to keep records of any correspondence, particularly if your tenant does give you confirmation of disposing the items. You definitely don’t want them having a change of heart and then denying all claims. I tend to prefer communicating through email these days, because it’s an easy way of keeping a nice conversation log.
If the tenant cannot be traced
This is where it can get particularly frustrating.
Alarmingly, it’s not uncommon for landlords to have no forwarding address or alternative means of contact for the tenant. In this case, all “reasonable” efforts should be taken to trace the tenant, and you do need to be able to prove you made reasonable efforts before you’re allowed to dispose of their possessions.
‘Tracing agents’ offer “no-find, no-fee” arrangements (cost is around £120), that might be your best option in this case. Again, this could can be deducted from any proceeds made from the sale of the items and anything of value must be sold at good value.
Notice of intention to sell possession
If you do plan on selling the items, Part II of Schedule 1 of the Torts (Interference with Goods) Act 1977, says the following:
- (1)A notice under section 12(3) shall—
- (a)specify the name and address of the bailee, and give sufficient particulars of the goods and the address or place where they are held, and
- (b)specify the date on or after which the bailee proposes to sell the goods, and
- (c)specify the amount, if any, which is payable by the bailor to the bailee in respect of the goods, and which became due before the giving of the notice.
- (2)The period between giving of the notice and the date specified in the notice as that on or after which the bailee proposes to exercise the power of sale shall be such as will afford the bailor a reasonable opportunity of taking delivery of the goods.
- (3)If any amount is payable in respect of the goods by the bailor to the bailee, and become due before giving of the notice, the said period shall be not less than three months.
- (4)The notice shall be in writing and shall be sent by post in a registered letter, or by the recorded delivery service.
(‘Bailee’ is the person that temporarily gains possession, but not ownership)
The most mortifying aspect about all of that is that it states that the tenant should be given at least 3 months notice of the landlord’s intention to sell (unless there is a clause in the tenancy agreement saying otherwise). That means we may potentially have to store the possessions for a minimum of 3 months.
Can I use the deposit to cover the costs of storage and removal?
When a deposit is taken, it usually isn’t returned until the final inspection. So this generally gives landlords some leverage.
Generally, deposits can be used to cover cleaning costs at the end of the tenancy if the property isn’t returned in the same condition it was provided in (minus wear and tear, of course). I believe this can also count for storage costs.
But since the deposit is protected by a deposit scheme, it will be up to their internal resolution service to make the final ruling if the tenant objects to the costs. In this case, a well documented inventory will be useful as it should prove what the condition of the property was before and after the tenancy (e.g. photos of the property and a schedule of items).
Can I sell my tenant’s possessions to cover rent arrears?
Tempting. Truly tempting, and I totally get why that would be the obvious step to take.
But I wouldn’t advise it, and I would ignore those that do.
Some argue that it’s only fair (or even common sense) to sell or hold ransom a tenant’s possessions if they’re in arrears. But it’s actually a civil offence to do that, so don’t.
If your tenant owes rent, it should be treated as a completely separate issue from abandoned possessions. The correct way to recover the arrears is through the county court in possession proceedings or as a separate action for a money judgement.
Prevention & damage control
Needless to say, prevention is the best cure for this mess- we as landlords never want to be in this predicament, or at least limit the damage once we’re in it.
- Good tenants & referencing
Good and well referenced tenants will leave the property in the condition they found it in on the first day they moved in (minus any wear and tear). That’s the very definition of a good tenant.
So if you invest time and effort into thorough tenant referencing, particularly contacting previous landlords for references in this case, it should dramatically reduce the risk of falling victim to this potential shit-storm or any other.
- Tenancy Agreement Clauses
Most standard Tenancy Agreements cover the situation where tenants leave behind their possessions- so make sure yours has sensible clauses to help minimize spiralling problems. For example, a clause could reduce the required 3 month notice period to sell the tenant’s possessions, to 14 days for example.
However, it’s important to note that the clauses need to be fair and therefore enforceable, so it’s worth checking by someone qualified if your clauses meet those conditions.
- Alternative contact details
At the beginning of a tenancy collect in writing alternative contact details of friends or family who in the event of having goods left in the premises a landlord can contact.
It is possible to include a clause like this into the tenancy agreement, but it is generally advisable to use a formal notice of collection of goods as well.
- Check-out Inspection
These days, I always arrange a check-out inspection on the day my tenants’ vacate, and that’s when I give the property a once-over and cross-reference the inventory and check every aspect on my very own make-shift check-out form (available for free download). It’s also when my tenant’s usually return the keys and we say our farewells by hugging it out. It’s emotional.
I ignored this step the time I got caught out and I take full responsibility. Had I have met my tenant’s on the last day, I could have seen all their cheap and nasty possessions and told them to get rid! Lesson learned.
Is anyone currently going through this situation or has any experience/tips? Please leave a comment…
Disclaimer: I'm just a simple landlord blogger, I am not qualified to give legal advice. Any advice I give is my opinion based on my experience. I will always recommend you seek legal or professional advice on any legal matters!