Abandoned: When The Tenant Is Just…Gone!

*Knock* *Knock* …Anyone home?

A bright red front door.

Usually, a landlord knows when a tenant is moving out. But deal with enough properties for enough time, and you’re all but guaranteed to come across the instance when your rent doesn’t get paid, the tenant isn’t answering the phone, and when you finally get someone out there to inspect the property, it’s trashed and there’s clearly no one living there. What do you do with an abandoned property?

Well, the accurate answer is “it mostly depends on your state’s laws.” But for the sake of this post, we’re going to assume you live in Michigan, where Royal Rose Properties operates.

One thing that’s true no matter where you operate – document everything so a tenant can’t come back and sue you for unlawfully taking back possession of their home. Depending on your state laws, the burden of proof may fall solely on the landlord, who may face treble damages.

When Can You Enter an Abandoned Home?

According to Michigan State Law §§ 600.2918(3)(c), “A landlord who believes in good faith that a tenant has abandoned the premises and does not intend to return may enter only after diligent inquiry and only if rent has not been paid.” In other words, you must make every attempt to contact the tenant to confirm their intent – and try multiple times. This includes calling all the numbers you have for them, calling their emergency contact(s), their references supplied at application, their work, then call them again, then you can go over, knock loudly, verbally announce that you’re there, and only then are you allowed to go inside uninvited. Of course, you should also text and email them if you have that information and capabilities.

If you’re still not sure, you can post a notice on the door and ask the tenant to contact you by a specific date when you will be changing the locks. Be sure the date is at least a week out and take a picture of your notice as you may need it as proof if the tenant sues you for unlawful eviction.

Why not just assume a tenant is permanently gone and not go through the hassle of trying to contact them? Well, Royal Rose Properties has dealt with the appearance of abandonment several times. We’ve discovered tenants were actually traveling abroad and another that was in the hospital. So, you should proceed with caution.

What Can You Do With the Crap Inside?

Before you touch anything, take a very good video or pictures of the interior to document what the tenant left behind. Most often what a tenant leaves behind though, is trash. You’ll have to pay to clean it up, but you can deduct that cost from your tenant’s security deposit. (Yes, you still have to make a good-faith effort to return the security deposit, if the abandoning tenant has any left to return.)

What do you do with the stuff that may actually have some value, like furniture, drum sets, electronics (surprisingly common in our experience), and so on? Ideally, you will have already covered this in a section of your lease about abandoned property. That section should declare what you intend to do with any abandoned property, so there’s no legal questions if it comes up.

If you’re looking at a pile of abandoned property and you have nothing in the lease about it, you should follow this rough plan:

  • Take inventory of the abandoned property,
  • Store anything that has extraordinary value (i.e. real jewelry or collector’s items),
  • Writing a letter to the tenant on how to reclaim that property, and sending it to them certified, with forwarding requested. Include a deadline (at least 30 days) by which they must reply, and inform them that they must reimburse you the costs of storage before they reclaim the property. If they do not, you will consider it legally abandoned.
  • If they reply, and fail to show up and collect the property, send a similar letter. If they don’t reply by the deadline, sell it and, if the tenant owes any money not covered by the security deposit, use it to pay the balance. Put any leftover money in trust for the tenant for a year, and if they do not come asking about it or the items that were sold, then and only then can you add it to your funds.

 

An Example of What a Landlord May Have to Go Through

Royal Rose Properties was once involved in a lawsuit by a tenant who got a free attorney from a nonprofit. We were served with papers that claimed we unlawfully took back possession of their home. They sought damages from us and the owner, for their missing $25,000 worth of belongings and a hotel stay for the remainder of their lease, totaling $82,000!

We had done everything outlined here including phone calls, texts and posting a notice – which we took a timestamped pic of. We also stored their belongings.

In the court filings, the tenant claimed they had tried to contact us multiple times, which we were able to refute, as our phone system tracks every call, even hangups. We also obtained a deposition from a neighbor that they hadn’t seen the tenant for several weeks before we rekeyed the property. In the end, because of all our documentation, the case was dismissed. Unfortunately, our client (the owner) still had to pay attorney fees to “win” this case.

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