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What to do when your tenant does a runner

We all panic from time-to-time.

Readers of this blog that are of a certain age will recall Corporal Jones running around the Walmington-on-Sea barracks shouting ‘don’t Panic, don’t panic’ in TV sitcom Dad’s Army.

But panicking was exactly what Jones was doing.

And tenants do, too, sometimes.

Unfortunately, that can mean they desert your rental property in the middle of a fixed term tenancy agreement – particularly if things are tough on the financial side and they feel they have nowhere to turn.

So, what can you do as a landlord when this happens?

And what can you do to try to ensure it doesn’t happen?

Tenancy abandonment: How to deal with it

They say prevention is better than cure.

And in the case of tenant’s jumping ship from tenancy agreements, they’d be right.

This is where ‘human’ landlords and good managing agents win the day.

Because if both put themselves in a position where a tenant feels they can approach them, a tenancy abandonment should be something neither ever has to worry about.

Most tenants do a runner from rental properties because they can’t afford to pay the rent and panic.

But if they felt comfortable approaching their landlord or agent about the issue, more often than not something could be done to help.

Communicate with your tenant during their tenancy and undertake regular inspections – as we do as a managing agent for a host of properties in Chelmsford.

That communication, clearly without impacting on your tenant’s right to quiet enjoyment of the property, could reveal an issue early enough for something to be done.

Often, landlords don’t even realise that their tenant has disappeared until several months later, or when the rent stops coming in.

That’s a sure-fire sign that you have not kept the lines of communication open with your tenant.

But it’s happened, so how do you deal with it when your tenant abandons your rental property?

Problems you’ll face when a tenant abandons your property

Notwithstanding the fact an empty property means no rental income, there are also a host of other potential problems that come with a tenancy abandonment.

Here are just a handful:

  • Damage to the property, i.e frost damage, leaks, burst pipes, mould and condensation
  • Property security, i.e break-ins, squatters
  • Void buildings insurance. Most insurers need notification if a property is to be empty for longer than two weeks in order for the policy to remain valid
  • Abandoned pets. As cruel as it sounds, sometimes tenants can leave their pets behind when abandoning a property
  • Remaining possessions. If a tenant abandons the property in haste, they could leave behind a multitude of belongings, which you, as a landlord, then become responsible for under the Torts (Interference with Goods) Act 1977

Be sure that your tenant has abandoned the property

Can you be sure that your tenant has abandoned your property?

You need to be.

And that means not panicking and frantically trying to get your property re-let or starting court proceedings against your disappearing tenant.

Under the Protection from Eviction Act 1977, tenants carry a pretty high level of protection and once a tenancy is under way, this protection is activated – even if they are not present at the property for a period of time.

How to be legally compliant during an abandonment case

Even if you’re 100% certain your tenant has bailed out and disappeared, you need to run through the official processes or risk falling foul of the Protection from Eviction Act 1977.

So, that means obtaining a voluntary surrender of the tenancy from the tenant, or obtaining a possession order.

If you or your managing agent enters the property, cleans up, removes possessions and then re-lets only for the missing tenant to return, serious trouble is just around the corner.

Even if you’re sure there has been an abandonment, you may not know where your disappearing tenant is, so a possession order is usually the best course of action.

Abandonments: Things to look out for

As we mentioned earlier, the sooner you can establish if your property has been abandoned or not, the easier it will be for you as a landlord.

That means regular inspections and looking out for things like:

  • Mail piling up on the door mat
  • Bins un-emptied
  • Drawn curtains
  • No cars at any time of day or night

You should also speak to neighbours and see if they have noticed any signs of life at the property.

If they haven’t, ask them to make a statement as this could be crucial evidence further down the line.

What to do immediately if you suspect an abandonment

If you are certain your tenant has disappeared, you should enter the property on that basis but with an agent or witness.

If you find the property is, in fact, occupied make your apologies to the tenant and state you were concerned for their safety and the security of the property.

Most will understand.

If the property is abandoned, there will be tell-tell signs, such as:

  • Rotting food in the fridge
  • Large items left behind
  • Mail behind the front door
  • A cold house
  • Keys posted through the letterbox

At this point, you should secure your property by changing the locks, switching off devices where appropriate.

If the weather is cold, consider leaving the heating on for a period of time to protect pipes from freezing over.

Take photographic evidence of the property as it stands and read the gas and electric meters.

Alternatively, draft in an inventory clerk to undertake a full report on the property’s condition.

An abandonment notice should then be fixed to the property’s front door and a 14-day Housing Act 1988 section 8 notice served to regain possession.

The notice should be addressed to the tenant by name and state that they have 14 days to return and outline who the keys can be collected from. If, after the 14-day period, they have not returned, the notice should state that as relevant grounds for possession.

Finally, the notice should state clearly that the tenant’s belongings (if any) will be held for a period of time before they are sold, with the proceeds used for storage costs.

Finding your missing tenant

As part of their tenancy application, you should have details that will enable you to at least try to trace your missing tenant.

Of course, if you used a lettings agent to find them in the first place, the screening process should provide you with details of their employers and / or next of kin.

Remember, there will be a reason why your tenant has departed without informing you – an accident, arrest and conviction or redundancy and loss of income are all reasons why a tenant could abandon a property.

So, in that sense, nobody wins.

But if you are owed substantial rental income or wish to withhold your tenant’s deposit to cover damage, you may have to attempt to trace them in order to issue a small claims court action.

To discuss how Martin & Co Chelmsford can help with managing your rental property, including helping to prevent tenancy abandonments, chat with one of our lettings experts

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