We are often asked questions about uncollected goods left in rental properties when tenants leave or when they abandon the tenancy, so here is a typical example:
Uncollected Goods – My tenant left behind a considerable amount of personal possessions including some items of furniture. Currently, I don’t have a forwarding address. How can I deal with this? Someone has told me I must keep the items for 3 months, is this right?
Sometimes, tenants leave possessions behind after a tenancy has ended, or when they abandon the premises.
These guidelines apply primarily to England and Wales. Other regions and jurisdictions are similar but there may be important differences. This is not a definitive interpretation of the law, every case is different and only a court can decide. If in doubt seek expert advice.
Often the possessions are of little value, but tenants may claim later that they were of great value, that they are irreplaceable or were of high sentimental value.
The requirements of the law in this area may seem onerous on the landlord but this is simply one of the hazards that make up the lot of the private landlord; it goes with the territory, but fortunately the problem is relatively rare.
Under common law a landlord is responsible for the safe keeping of a tenant’s left behind possessions – the landlord becomes an involuntary bailee pending collection. The tenant is further given statutory protection by The Torts (Interference with Goods) Act 1977.
An abandoned tenancy with the tenant’s possessions in it is an indication that the tenant may return – this has other legal implications for the landlord regarding abandonment – see the Protection from Eviction Act 1977.
The Torts (Interference with Goods) Act 1977 allows a landlord to sell goods left in a property if reasonable efforts to trace the tenant or owner of the goods fail. The Act further states that if the tenant is traced, the landlord must serve a notice stating its intention to dispose of the items, how to arrange collection and that storage, plus disposal of the items will incur costs but will not begin until the notice has expired.
Landlords should not release a tenant’s possessions to a third party without the full and verified consent of the original tenant.
A landlord cannot by law withhold a tenant’s possessions against any debt the tenant may owe, though the landlord can apply the proceeds of any sale of the goods to a debt, (such as rent arrears) providing these correct procedures are followed.
If after reasonable attempts to trace and notify the tenant, landlords are unsuccessful (you need good evidence that you tried), then the goods can be sold or otherwise disposed of.
If you have carried out your original Tenant Screening checks carefully and the tenant has completed a satisfactory Tenancy Application Form, you should always be in a position to trace and contact the tenant, or a relative, even if the premises are abandoned.
The Torts (Interference with Goods) Act 1977 is primarily designed for situations where goods are left for repair and charges are due for work done before collection, and states a period of 3 months. This is so the owner has time to save-up if for example a watch repair or car repair is very expensive.
In the case of tenancies, common sense says that only a reasonable notice period is required before sale or disposal, which in most cases would be no more than 14 days. Clauses in your tenancy agreement to this effect will take care of the notice period required and methods of service of notices.
A suggested procedure for legally disposing of a tenant’s uncollected possessions, but make sure you comply with the Act:
Always make an inventory and take photos of the goods before moving or disposing of them. Ideally have an independent witness verify this.
Make every effort to trace the tenant to their new address or contact them through any forwarding address, employer or next of kin address you may have. Post a notice at the rental property or place an advertisement in the local press.
If after a reasonable effort and time you are unable to trace the tenant then you are free to sell or otherwise dispose of the goods.
Otherwise, notify the tenant that the goods are available for collection, how to collect them and state that they will be kept for a reasonable period before disposal in accordance with the Act.
Make sure your notice clearly identifies you as the landlord and gives full contact details.
The law expects the landlord to obtain the best possible price for goods of any value sold and then return any amount beyond the landlord’s costs to the tenant. Keep all documents of valuation and receipts of sale.
If you use a house clearance specialist, ask them for a written approximate valuation and receipt.
If the goods remain unclaimed after a reasonable period you can dispose of them, or if they have value, sell them to a buyer who will receive good title to them. The original owner will therefore lose all rights to the goods.
Once you have covered your expenses in this process and any rent arrears etc, any proceeds left over will belong to the original owner – your tenant, should they should turn up and claim within six years.
This article first appeared in the Landlord & Buy to Let Magazine
By Tom Entwistle, LandlordZONE®
If you have any questions about any of the issues here, post your question to the LandlordZONE® Forums – these are the busiest Rental Property Forums in the UK – you will have an answer in no time at all.
©LandlordZONE All Rights Reserved – never rely totally on these general guidelines which apply primarily to England and Wales. They are not definitive statements of the law. Before taking action or not, always do your own research and/or seek professional advice with the full facts of your case and all documents to hand.