3 Biggest Mistakes You Can Make with Abandoned Rentals

Abandoned rentals can leave landlords confused as to how to proceed, and the rules for what you can and cannot do vary by state.
At some point in your time as a landlord, you will be faced with an empty or half empty unit, wondering where your tenant is.
Perhaps it’s because you served the tenant with an eviction notice and you think they’ve moved out in the night to avoid further action. Or, another possibility is that the tenant simply wanted out of the lease and the rental property and just broke it.

We recently came across a property manager from the NYC area who had a very interesting story.
His former tenant passed away and her son took over the lease. The son passed away and the question Cory found himself asking, “What do I do with my former tenant’s ashes?”
Listen to Cory tell his story and then Steve discusses what you must know about abandoned property.

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But getting back to the subject at hand…
You now have what you think might be an abandoned rental property. However, proceeding as if the tenant is long gone can be a costly mistake for you. When it comes to abandoned rentals, you must avoid the 3 biggest mistakes landlords can make to keep things legal when recovering your rental property.

Mistake #1: Assuming It’s Abandoned When It’s Not

Sometimes it is obvious when a tenant abandons a property, such as when they move out in the night and leave you a note and a property full of garbage. Other times, it may be difficult to tell whether the tenant has abandoned the rental unit. In their hurry to turn over a rental unit and get rid of a bad tenant, some landlords may make the mistake of assuming the property is abandoned when in fact it is not.
If you are unsure about whether the tenant has truly abandoned the property, find the answers to these questions:

  • Is the tenant behind in paying the rent? Many states won’t consider a rental abandoned if the rent is current.
  • Are the utilities shut off? A quick call to the utility company will provide you with this information, however, this also may be a coincidence for nonpayment and not necessarily abandonment.
  • Is there anything left in the rental unit, like furniture or clothes? If there are valuable items left behind, it’s less likely to be abandoned than if you find garbage or rotting food.
  • Did the neighbors notice anything significant? If others witnessed a moving truck at the property the other day, or the tenant told them they were leaving, it helps to solidify other evidence of abandonment.
  • Has a change of address been submitted to the post office? A quick visit to the local post office will help you figure it out.
  • What do the tenant’s emergency contacts say? You must get in touch with the tenant’s emergency contacts to see if they offer any insights into the tenant’s absence.

No single factor is conclusive—instead, you must consider several things before you can conclude that the property is abandoned. It’s a fine line between a tenant abandoning a property and simply being gone for a while. Unusual circumstances, such as an extended vacation or business trip, a hospital stay or even jail time can make it seem as if the tenant has abandoned the property when legally they are still in possession as long as they have not broken the lease terms.

Mistake #2. Disposing of Personal Property

When tenants leave in a hurry, whether it’s due to eviction proceedings or another reason, they often leave personal property behind. Even if you’ve established that the rental unit is indeed abandoned, you are still required to put in some time and effort into dealing with the tenant’s possessions. New landlords may mistakenly claim the abandoned property as their own and keep it or try to sell it to recoup some lost income. However, this is illegal unless done in the proper way.
While different states have varying requirements, in general, a landlord must store the tenant’s personal property for a time and use reasonable care to keep it safe from harm or theft. While this seems strange—to care for the abandoned junk of a former tenant—the laws are quite clear that at least for a designated time, the landlord is responsible for those possessions.
Here are some examples from states across the country on dealing with a tenant’s personal property that has been left behind:

  • California requires landlords to move the property and store it safely, then deliver a notice to the former tenant, if possible, as well as any contacts he might have that gives a deadline of 18 days for the tenant to claim the property. The tenant is required to pay the landlord the reasonable cost of storage before reclaiming the property. If unclaimed and the property is worth less than $300, the landlord can keep it or dispose of it. If it is worth more than $300, the property must be sold at a public bidding.
  • Kansas landlords must store possessions for 30 days and at least 15 days before sale or disposal, attempt to notify the tenant. Unlike most other states that require the notice to be mailed or delivered personally, Kansas law requires landlords to publish the notice in the local newspaper. After 7 days from publication, the landlord must mail a copy of the published notice to the tenant’s last known address. All proceeds from a sale go to the landlord.
  • North Carolina law requires landlords to store abandoned property in a county warehouse for 10 days, after which the landlord may sell, keep, donate or dispose of the property. If the landlord chooses to sell the abandoned property, he must send a written notice at least 7 days in advance to the tenant’s last known address. Proceeds first go to the landlord to offset any remaining costs from the tenant and the balance goes to the county.

Mistake #3. Failing to Document the Process

Even if they’ve covered all your bases in judging that the rental is abandoned and they’ve properly disposed of any of the former tenant’s possessions, many landlords make the mistake of failing to document the process of recovering an abandoned rental property. If you make the wrong call and face a wrongful lockout claim from the tenant, you’ll need to have evidence on your side in court to show why you made the call you did.
Here are some things you must do in order to properly document your discovery process in recovering an abandoned rental property:

  • Take pictures of the property, including instances where it seems like the tenant has abandoned it, such as rotting food in the fridge, lack of furniture, abandoned pets, unkempt lawn, and so forth.
  • Write down the names, times and dates of interviews with neighbors or the tenant’s emergency contacts, along with a summary of the conversation.
  • Collect any documents you get from the utility companies about shutoffs.
  • Keep copies of any official notices you send to the tenant at the last known address or to the tenant’s workplace to show your attempts at communication.
  • Document the costs for moving and storing any possessions left behind using receipts or invoices.

Abandoned Apartment Key

If your apartment is abandoned but there is no key to be found you will want to have the locks changed as soon as possible. Kwikset makes locks that are easy to rekey with Smart Key technology. Just be sure that you take back full control of the apartment before rekeying the locks.

The Final Word

In general, when a tenant abandons a rental property, they don’t intend to return but there have been too many instances where an eager or uninformed landlord has moved too quickly and outside the law, and made these critical mistakes. When in doubt, consult with an attorney who specializes in landlord/tenant issues and make sure you are proceeding in such a way as to minimize the time the unit is empty without compromising on following the laws of your state.
Have you ever had a tenant abandon your rental property? What steps did you take to ensure you were compliant with all the legal requirements? Please share this article and let us know your opinions in the comments section below.

Next steps:

You’re most likely going to be looking for a new tenant soon.
Now is the perfect time to read up on the tenant screening process.
This way you’ll have better data to make decisions when it comes to your next tenant.


    • What money? The security deposit or the rent? Or both?
      Most landlords would allow the tenant to leave since they don’t want a problem tenant right from the beginning, but they wouldn’t forfeit all of the deposit. At the end of the day, they signed an agreement. They are legally bound to it. Make it clear that the deposit will cover lost rent and time to re-rent but you’ll be kind enough to release them from the lease/agreement. If they don’t want to forfeit the deposit, then they should stay.

  1. Have tenant who had father sign the lease with the intention of him moving in. He wound up not moving in leaving daughter, her kids and her husband residing there. They recently disappeared (I live in an adjoined house) but they rented out a room without notice, permission or anything about a month before. They moved out, changing locks etc and leaving her belongings inside. She wants to get her things. I’ve tried all possible ways to contact, including her ex and the father, no such luck. Days later past when rent is due, I receive mail with this mystery girl’s name and am going to go ahead and say that reason to believe she has taken residency there and I can access the property to let her take her stuff. Is this reasonable? And what do i do now? (abandonment evidence: hasn’t returned to residence, no response, no rent payment, electricity is turned off, mailbox has message to fwd mail, fb post mentioning moving and places them in a different state)

  2. Hello,
    My mother had a tenant thats attached to her property. the tenant has failed to pay rent and show since June. (3 months) everything in the apartment looks as if they planned to come back (food in fridge, TV’s) all utility bills are under my moms name. All emergency contact Numbers are no longer working and no one has came by looking for her or her son. what should be her next step?

    • Follow the steps to take back the property assuming it’s been abandoned. If they haven’t been there since June, you absolutely have reason to believe they’re not coming back.

    • My deceased mother’s husband was the previous tenant and has been arrested? How do I take back possession of my property? We had no lease agreement and he paid no rent. He was required by our agreement to maintain the property and pay the property taxes, which he has not been doing for nearly 10 months.

  3. Do we have the right to break the lease? or what will happen if we just abandon the apartment? We are renting and apartment with a lease of 1 year ever since we moved in we had started with issues in the apartment it weather being the apartment wasnt turned in clean we also had a leaking sink and a window on second floor that does not close right there is loud music played thoughout the day we had brought these issues to the managers attention thats lives on sight and nothing was done we went to the office and made a complaint and we were told if issues were not solved the neighbors and us will both get evicted letter on we found out the the neighbor is a sex offender and nothing was told to us when we moved in now we get mugged all the time from the managers family members and issues continue we are honestly tiered becuase we havent been heard and we are planning to leave the appartment but we know that our credit can be hurt what can we do ?

  4. i have a tenant who has not paid rent in 4 months. the power has been shut off for a month. she still has water only because we have it piped in from our well. she bums around the neighborhood living her and there . i have posted an eviction notice, but i don’t think she goes over there any more. i need to remove her things so i can rent it. she has told me on several occasions that she was coming to get her things, but she has yet to do it. i need to know if i can go in and remove her things.

  5. I’ve recently had a tenant leave the property in the night. Up until last Thursday he was saying he was going to pay me but all his stuff is gone and I haven’t seen any money. I’m not sure whether to be evicting for failure to pay or abandonment. If it’s abandonment can I still request he pay rent? He signed a year lease and never got me the security deposit in full (my mistake I won’t make again!). Thanks!

  6. My 24 yo son packed his entire room, clothes , computers, took his cat, left and hasn’t set foot here in two weeks. He hasn’t received Florida’s 3 day notice….i wasn’t sure if I need to evict…because he’s not been back. He said he’s coming to get the rest of his stuff. He left an empty dresser and two empty side tables. Did he move out or do I have to have him evicted? He willingly signed the title back on my truck also. I HATE to put an eviction on him at 25 but I will. We have also received no mail for him in 2 weeks. I’m going to mail a blank letter, proof of delivery to find out. However he may not have changed it through post office. Nothing in writing, verbal for him to pay 100 per month.

  7. My deceased mother’s husband was the previous tenant and has been arrested? How do I take back possession of my property? We had no lease agreement and he paid no rent. He was required by our agreement to maintain the property and pay the property taxes, which he has not been doing for nearly 10 months.

  8. We served the 3 day notice and 10 day notice on our tenants and then filed unlawful detainer complaint summons, and notice of intent to issue Writ of Posession. These people moved in, told us to cash a check they had written and they would pay is the rest the next business day which they never did. They then claimed we “accepted partial rent” which was never agreed to, but we couldnt exactly un-cash the check they told us to cash. It was a con artist scam from the beginning but we made the mistake of allowing them to move in before all money had cleared their bank Anyway, they hired an attorney, so we did too instead of trying to go pro se They told us they would sit in our house and not pay (explicative) for 90 days and would make our lives “a living hell” if we tried to evict them ( and they have tried to .ake good on their promise, too). Two months of squatting later, we finally got word from our attorneys office that they were moving out. Our court date is next week and we are guessing they are trying to avoid that. So I checked today with electric and water company and the squatters had everything disconnected. I made the four hour drive to the house and they still had a car there. Since I dodnt know if they were in the house or not I called the sheriffs office for a civil standby. He checked and cleared the house. Except for a broken bed and trash there was nothing left in the house. I had a friend change the locks and the deputy told me I had the right to have their car towed I have not done that yet as I feel it is reasonable to believe they will return for the car. So all I did was secure the house because they had left it unlocked and anyone could have entered it. If they left the broken bed there in order to claim that I did an illegal self eviction then I’ll answer for it. But when they have no utilities in their name because they have had them shut off, they’ve told their paralegal they would be out by today and she relayed it to our attorneys paralegal, and they squatted for two months without payment I feel that is enough to justify considering the place abandoned and securing it the way that I did.

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