Lost and Found - What To Do With Tenant's Possessions Left Behind?

Lost and Found - What To Do With Tenant's Possessions Left Behind?

Forgetfulness is a problem for many people but leaving a Range Rover behind with the keys when moving home takes the foible to a whole new level. That’s what one up-market tenant did when vacating an apartment block, according to a letting agent in London.

Letting agents and landlords often find strange things left behind at their letting property. Typically, the items are sofas, beds, furniture and electrical goods that are too big to move or won’t fit the tenant’s new home. A couple of years ago, The Deposit Protection Service published their top ten list of bizarre items from a poll they took of over a 1,000 landlords which makes interesting reading: 1. Sex Toys 2. An Elephant’s Foot 3. Ashes of a Dead Person 4. A Pot Bellied Pig 5. A Box Containing Nail Clippings 6. A Crash Test Dummy 7. A Pair of Synthetic Breasts 8. A Glass Bowl Covered with Cling Film Containing 17 Live Spiders 9. A Plastic Hand with a Fork Attached 10. Seven Cans of Gravy Granules. (Who would have thought someone would need so many cans of gravy?)

This is all very amusing, unless, of course, you’re the landlord who has to deal with such “Lost Property” left behind. The Range Rover is the exception that proves the rule, usually, the stuff left behind is of little or no value and the natural reaction would be just to chuck it out.  However, the law says differently, it says any items left behind by a tenant still belong to them and as a landlord you need to be careful before disposing of any item.

The requirements of the law 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. This is not intended as a definitive interpretation of the law as every case is different and, ultimately only a court can decide, so, if in doubt, seek expert legal advice. However, here is some guidance should you find yourself in this situation.

Under common law, a landlord is responsible for the safe keeping of a tenant’s left behind possessions – the landlord becomes what’s known as “An Involuntary Bailee” pending collection. The tenant is further given statutory protection by The Torts (Interference with Goods) Act 1977.  However, the same Act 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 their 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.

Ok, what does this mean in practice? Let’s use the example of a sofa and two armchairs. First off, if you or your agent has carried out the original tenant screening checks carefully, you should always be in a position to trace and contact the tenant. 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 should have. If after reasonable attempts to trace and notify the tenant, you’re unsuccessful (you need good evidence that you tried), then the goods can be sold or otherwise disposed of. 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 (At Martin & Co, we use 14 days in ours).

Right, so you know where your tenants now live, you’ve served notice to them at their new address by recorded delivery and your notice clearly identified you as the landlord and provided your contact details. It also spelled out that the goods are available for collection, how to collect them and stated they will be kept for a reasonable period before disposal. Now what? What are you going to do with those unwanted sofa and chairs? Firstly, always make an inventory and take photos of the goods before moving or disposing of them. Ideally have an independent witness verify this. If contact has been made with your tenant, don’t release their possessions to a third party without the full and verified consent of the original tenant.

More likely than not, your notice will go unanswered so you’ll be free to sell or otherwise dispose of the goods. Remember though, if you are able to sell them, the proceeds belong to the tenant but you are able to deduct costs of sale and storage. Unlike 7 Cans of Gravy Granules, used sofas and chairs usually don’t have much value and so you’ll probably end up having to pay someone to take them away. This cost can be claimed against your tenant’s security deposit, of course.

Just remember, tempting as it may be to go with your natural instinct of just throwing the stuff out in the first instance, inevitably, after the event tenants may claim they were of great value, they’re irreplaceable or were of high sentimental value!

If you would like any more information on this or our award winning letting and property management services, please contact Martin & Co on 01603 766860.