IT'S a dilemma faced by many landlords: a tenant has, for whatever reason, vacated their property and left behind their belongings. Can a landlord dispose of them as he or she wishes, or is the situation more complicated than that?
The law is quite clear about when a landlord can treat a former tenant's belongings as abandoned. It is also clear about whether or not the landlord can bin the left behind belongings, or dispose of them in other ways.
Belongings are only abandoned if the tenant has made it clear that they have relinquished ownership of them. Simply leaving them behind when they leave does not amount to abandonment.
If the belongings have not been abandoned, the landlord has to give notice to their owner requiring them to collect their belongings within a reasonable time.
The best way to do this, if the landlord has a forwarding address, is by recorded delivery.
The letter should make the deadline clear and also state that if there is no response or if the goods are not collected, they will be disposed of or sold. A copy of the letter, and the recorded delivery slip, should be retained.
If the former tenant fails to retrieve their belongings within the allotted time, then the landlord can sell them.
But the landlord has to let the tenant know what the goods sell for – any money raised would, strictly speaking, be the tenant's although a landlord can legitimately deduct any costs associated with the sale (such as auctioneer's or eBay fees, and advertising costs).
Landlords can, however, remove the belongings from the property and store them. This means that the goods left behind are not an impediment to re-letting the property.
Landlords are covered by the law if they find themselves in a situation where they have done all they can to establish ownership of the belongings left behind on their premises, but have been unable to do so – even if they have used so-called tracing agents to find their former tenant.
In this situation, case law dictates that a landlord is entitled to believe that no one had claimed the goods, and that they could dispose of them as they see fit.
However, while the law is clear it is important that landlords take appropriate legal advice before they take any action.
There is a statutory procedure that must be followed in such instances, and failure to do so may result in a lengthy and potentially expensive dispute with a former tenant.