Dealing with belongings left behind by tenants after the end of their tenancy can be a nuisance for landlords, especially if they are facing a quick turnaround for the new incoming tenant.
What is the legal position regarding the landlord’s ability to “deal” with such items?
Does the tenancy agreement cover it?
Tenancy agreements (‘ASTs’) will often include an express obligation requiring the tenant to remove their possessions from the premises at the end of the term. In addition, the AST will sometimes go on to explain what the landlord can do with such belongings that are left in the property at the end of a tenancy.
What if there’s nothing covering it in the tenancy agreement?
In legal terms, a landlord may become an involuntary bailee if they, without their consent, find themselves in possession of goods belonging to another. This would include situations where your outgoing tenant has left their belongings at the property at the end of the tenancy.
Despite being in possession of the goods without your consent, you cannot simply deal with or dispose of the goods as you wish as there is no general right under common law to dispose of such goods. As an involuntary bailee you are under a duty:
- not to deliberately or recklessly damage or destroy the goods (this would include the sale of the goods knowing them not to be yours)
- if trying to return the goods to their owner through a third party, to ensure that the third party has the owner’s permission to receive them
(Neuwith v Over Darwen Co-operative Society  63 LJQB 290)
What can you do if you find yourself an involuntary bailee?
Whilst you are entitled to do whatever is “reasonable” to dispose of the items, what is “reasonable” will depend on the circumstances and unfortunately, there are few legal authorities on this. For instance, if the goods left behind are particularly cumbersome, perishable or clearly in poor condition, swift disposal by destruction or refuse collection is more likely to be reasonable than if they were items of high value in good condition.
The uncertainty of what might be construed as reasonable in these terms can be problematical. However, if you can show that the goods have been “abandoned” you will be able to deal with the goods as if you were the owner.
How can I establish that the goods have been abandoned?
Tempting as it may be to assume that belongings left behind by tenants have been “abandoned”, the onus is on you as the involuntary bailee to establish this fact.
Section 12(3) of the Torts (Interference with Goods) Act 1977 gives the power to sell the goods in certain circumstances. The right to sell will be triggered by the serving of a notice under s12 or the securing of a court order under s13. You must also be reasonably satisfied that the bailor is the owner of the goods.
How do I serve a s12 notice?
You must take reasonable steps to locate the tenant and send them the notice as well as attaching the notice to the premises in a prominent position.
The notice should contain the following information:
- your name and address so that the tenant can contact you;
- a description and schedule of the goods and details of where they are being stored;
- specification of a reasonable period in which the tenant must collect their goods (not less than 21 days);
- statement of what you intend to do with the goods should the tenant fail to collect them;
- if there is an intention to sell them, state where and when the sale will take place;
- confirmation that any storage or sale costs will be retained from the proceeds of sale.
If, after serving the notice, the former tenant has not collected their belongings within the stated period (assuming that this is reasonable), it is reasonable you to assume that the goods have been abandoned. You will then be free to deal with them as you see fit.
Should you decide to sell the goods, this should be for a proper price and you should account to the tenant for the proceeds of sale (deducting your storage and sale costs). If the tenant is not in fact the owner of the goods, any purchaser will not take good title so it is important to check this fact. If you cannot locate the tenant, you must hold on to the proceeds of sale for at least a reasonable time to allow the tenant to make contact and collect. A reasonable time in this context will depend on the circumstances and the value of the goods. In short, you may not profit from any sale of the goods.Generally, belongings abandoned by tenants tend not to be of high value, therefore it is unlikley that you will recoup any funds by selling the goods.
What if the tenant has abandoned the property without giving notice?
It may sound obvious but the first thing to check is that the tenant has indeed vacated. Abandonment of a property is incredibly rare. If a tenant is not at the property but has left his belongings it is arguable that this is evidence that the tenant intends to return to the property and it has not actually been abandoned.
If you empty the property and change the locks you could be unlawfully evicting the tenant. The tenant might have a claim against you for significant damages that might easily run into thousands of pounds. To protect your position you should consult a solicitor and obtain a court order before taking possession.
Landlords should consider and check the following:
- does/should the tenancy agreement contain provisions requiring the tenant to remove goods at termination of the tenancy and a right for the landlord to deal with any goods left in breach of this;
- if the former tenant fails to collect their belongings, consider issuing a notice under s12 or seeking a court order under s13 to establish the goods as “abandoned” and trigger the power to sell;
- When the tenant leaves the property, obtain a forwarding address if possible;
- check that the tenant is the owner of the goods in question so that good title may be given to any purchaser of the goods on their sale;
- keep a thorough inventory of any goods left in the property with photographs and make a record of all action taken in case there is a need to establish a defence of abandonment in the event of any claim by the former tenant for damages or conversion.
Neuwith v Over Darwen Co-operative Society  63 LJQB 290
Fiona Wheeler is a Trainee Solicitor at Helix. She recently completed the Graduate Diploma of Law at the University of Brighton, winning the Thomson Reuters prize for best overall mark, and is currently studying the Legal Practice Course at the University of Law in parallel with her training contract.
This article is written to raise awareness of the issues it discusses and it may not be updated after it is first written, even if the law changes. It is not intended to be legal advice and cannot be relied on as such. Helix Law is not responsible or liable for any action taken or not taken as a result of this article. If you think the matters set out affect you and you wish to apply them to your particular circumstances then we are happy to give you free initial telephone advice.