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    Am I Responsible for My Former Tenant’s Left-Behind Belongings?

    The Question of Unclaimed Personal Property

    What happens when a tenant leaves some of their personal property behind when they move out of a rental unit? Is the landlord responsible for storing that personal property? Is the landlord responsible for returning the property to the former tenant? Does it matter whether the tenant is evicted or moves out voluntarily? This article addresses the rules—and best practices—that landlords in Michigan should follow when confronted with abandoned personal property left behind by a tenant.

    [Note: this article is about abandoned personal property. If you are seeking information on how to determine whether a tenant has physically abandoned a rental property, please see RPOA’s related article by clicking here.]

    When a tenancy is terminated, whether at the end of the lease term or otherwise, the landlord expects the tenant to vacate the rental premises, with the premises clean and in good condition, and empty of all the tenant’s personal property.

    Quite often that is not the case.

    Most items left behind by tenants are unwanted. Landlords have no duty to save or store garbage; they are free to dispose of worthless items such as bottles, cans, and old food. Any resulting clean-up costs (and related repairs) can be lawfully deducted from the tenant’s security deposit. Even so, landlords should exercise caution here, as one person’s trash may be another person’s treasure. In deciding to dispose of any abandoned personal property, it is smart and advisable to make an inventory of what was thrown away, including the date and method of disposal.

    Michigan Law: Unique Among States

    Sometimes, tenants forget to remove items that are clearly of value, such as electronics, clothes, furniture, bicycles, and more. Most states have laws on the books that instruct landlords to the proper procedure for dealing with abandoned items of value. The State of Michigan, however, is an exception. While Michigan has clear laws intact that deal with landlord and tenant rights, the Michigan Legislature has not yet passed a statutory law that covers situations involving personal property abandoned by a tenant.

    Case Law as a Guide

    Unfortunately, Michigan case law is similarly of little help. The subject of abandoned personal property—and a landlord’s resulting responsibility—has largely escaped scrutiny from the judiciary. There are few published cases and no appellate court decisions that provide a definitive rule for these situations. That having been said, case law is continually evolving. To stay up-to-date with the latest developments in Michigan case law (related to abandoned personal property or anything else of concern to rental property), landlords should to do their due diligence—either by consulting with an attorney from time-to-time, or by conducting their own legal research.

    Protect Yourself in the Lease/Rental Agreement

    Knowing that the legislative and judicial branches have been silent on the matter of abandoned personal property, landlords should take common-sense contractual steps to protect their legal interests. The easiest of these steps is to simply include an abandoned property clause in the lease or rental agreement. A well-written abandoned property clause serves to eliminate any uncertainty by creating rules for both the landlord and the tenant to follow in the case of abandoned property. These clauses are especially salient in states like Michigan, where there are no statutory laws.

    An effective abandoned property clause should be applicable to all move-out circumstances, whether the tenant moves out after giving proper notice or after an eviction. It should list the steps the landlord will take in an instance where personal property is left behind. To ensure the best possible legal protections to the landlord, the language should include a progression similar to the one described below:

    Should tenant fail to remove all his/her personal property from the premises:

    1. Landlord will take an inventory of the abandoned personal property.
    2. Landlord will store any property that has value.
    3. Former tenant is responsible for reimbursing landlord for reasonable storage costs.
    4. Landlord will provide written notice to former tenant. Notice will include:
      1. How to reclaim property.
      2. Where to reclaim property.
      3. The deadline for reclaiming property (30 days from notice is standard).
    5. Failure to reclaim property prior to deadline constitutes legal abandonment.
    6. Landlord may offer legally abandoned property for sale to the public.

     
    When There’s No Written Agreement

    What if you are a landlord who is working off an old lease that has no abandoned property clause? If you are absolutely certain that the property has been abandoned, you can still protect yourself by voluntarily taking the steps listed in the above section. When you take an inventory of the property, take photographs as evidence. Once you store the property, send a detailed notice to the former tenant. It is generally a good idea to send the notice by United States Postal Service First-Class Mail, with proof of delivery.

    When the Property is Left Unclaimed by the Tenant

    Once the landlord has provided the former tenant with reasonable notice and the deadline has passed without a claim for the personal property, the landlord is free to dispose of it. Just to be safe, the landlord may wish to take the following precautions:

    1. Sell the property at a public sale.
    2. Publish notice of the sale in a newspaper that has a daily, local circulation.
    3. Send the tenant a final notice that states where and when the landlord will sell the property.

     
    Recovering Excess Costs

    What happens if the tenant owes the landlord money for back rent, property damage, and/or reasonable storage costs? Sometimes, the tenant’s security deposit doesn’t cover everything. In those instances, the landlord can take the balance owed from the sale proceeds. If the sale results in excess funds, the landlord should keep those sale proceeds in trust for the tenant—for at least one year before pocketing the extra cash.

    Suing for Monies Owed

    What if the sale—combined with the security deposit—provides insufficient funds to cover back rent, property damage, and/or storage costs? In these circumstances, the landlord may sue the tenant in small claims court. Often, judgments for monies owed aren’t difficult to obtain. Collecting that money is a different story. Garnishments are a legal tool that many landlords find useful in these situations. For more information on how to obtain a garnishment, please see RPOA’s related article by clicking here.   For a complete review of the process and procedures for garnishments and collections, watch the RPOA online course here.

    Consulting an Attorney

    Prior to drafting a new lease or rental agreement, you should familiarize yourself with common practices in Michigan to ensure that your written provisions comply. You may also wish to consult with (or hire) an experienced attorney to help draft appropriate lease language. If you are currently dealing with abandoned personal property, it is highly recommended that you contact an attorney if you think that the personal property is highly valuable—or if you have good reason to believe that the former tenant is likely to cause problems later. Good lawyers help landlords protect themselves from claims that they have stolen or destroyed a tenant’s valuable personal property.

    Taking the Super Safe Route

    Where there are numerous valuables or a whole unit full of furniture, clothes and other personal items, many attorneys will recommend that the landlord proceed with some form of eviction to obtain an eviction judgment which will ultimately enable the property to be disposed of without repercussions.

    Need Help? Contact the Rental Property Owners Association

    The Rental Property Owners Association (RPOA) is here to help. We have a wealth of lease-writing information available to landlords (and prospective landlords), beginning with lease forms, which are available by clicking here. You may also wish to join the RPOA, if you haven’t already. We have been helping real estate investors since 1968.  Not only are we the largest real estate investment association in Michigan, but we are also one of the largest real estate investment associations in the country. Please click here for membership information.