When a tenant vacates a rental property they can sometimes leave behind certain possessions. Often these are not of any value, but they may later claim that they were either irreplaceable or of high or sentimental value, so landlords must be cautious when it comes to discarding these items.

A landlord is responsible under common law for the safe keeping of a tenant’s left behind possessions – the landlord is an involuntary bailee pending collection. The tenant is further given statutory protection by The Torts (Interference with Goods) Act 1977.

If the property is abandoned with the tenant’s possessions in, this can be 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 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.

By law, a landlord cannot withhold a tenant’s possessions against any debt the tenant may owe. Providing correct procedures are followed the landlord can apply the proceeds of any sale of the goods to a debt, (such as rent arrears).

If a landlord after reasonable attempts to trace and notify the tenant, is still unsuccessful (you need evidence of this), then the goods can be sold or otherwise disposed of. By following and carrying out original tenant screening checks carefully and if the tenant has completed a satisfactory tenancy application, a landlord should be able to trace and contact the tenant, or a relative, even if the premises have been abandoned.

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 carry out 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 the landlord uses a house clearance specialist, they should ask them for a written approximate valuation and receipt.

If the goods remain unclaimed after a reasonable period the landlord 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 the landlord has covered their expenses in this process and any rent arrears etc. any proceeds left over will belong to the original owner – the tenant, should they should turn up and claim within six years.