Tenant Abandonment in California: What Landlords Should Know

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When a tenant abandons a residence, a landlord or property manager often faces several challenges, including unpaid rent, discarded personal belongings and how to legally reclaim the property. California has strict laws concerning tenant abandonment. Before deciding on what to do in those instances, the property owner must make sure abandonment has genuinely taken place.

Abandonment Determination

In most cases, tenant abandonment of a rental property is apparent. If neighbors have seen a tenant moving out, or if the unit is empty of the tenant's personal belongings, then the resident has likely vacated the property.

In other instances it may not be so clear, but a landlord can discern probable abandonment if neighbors haven't seen the tenant in weeks, if he is late in paying rent or has been out of contact. However, there may be other extenuating circumstances that would explain a tenant's absence — he may be in jail, in the hospital or out of town.

An uncertain landlord should conduct further research before deciding on a tenant's status. She should check the lease agreement, study state and local laws on how to proceed and keep detailed records of what she believes are clues to abandonment. The landlord can also research the tenant's possible whereabouts by:

  • Talking to neighbors about the tenant's behavior regarding a potential move and when they last saw him.
  • Calling utility companies to find out if the tenant canceled his service or if disconnection took place due to lack of payment.
  • Contacting the post office to see if the tenant put in a change of address or forwarding information.
  • Reaching out to his contacts if she knows them.
  • Reaching out to the tenant with phone numbers, email addresses or physical addresses she may have.
  • Accessing the apartment if she can do so legally. Most landlords have permission to access a renter's unit under specific circumstances as detailed in the lease. 

Tenant Abandonment Law

According to California Civil Code Section 1951.3, a landlord can retake possession of a rental property once abandonment occurs if he has documented evidence of past due rent, canceled or disconnection of utilities, an empty unit, abandoned belongings and witnesses to the tenant's move. When the rent is more than 14 days past due, the landlord can file a Notice of Belief of Abandonment and summarize the reasons he believes tenant abandonment has taken place. The tenant has 18 days to respond from the date of the landlord's filing.

If the tenant does not respond in that time, the landlord can enter the unit and reclaim it by changing the locks and security codes. The tenant's security deposit will cover unpaid rent and any damages incurred while she was living there. Once the landlord has repaired the damages and cleaned the former tenant's unit, he can begin looking for the next tenant.

Abandonment of Personal Property

If the tenant leaves any property behind, California law states that the landlord must itemize the belongings and send the tenant or his contacts a list of them. If the landlord believes that the tenant does not own the property, but knows who the actual owner is, she must also send a notice to that person as well as the tenant.

California Civil Code Section 1984 requires that the notices contain specific information about the property and provide templates online for landlords to use. There is one for the tenant and another for the person believed to be the owner of the property if other than the tenant. Regardless of which notice the landlord uses, each must contain:

  • A detailed description of the property.
  • Information as to the property's location.
  • A deadline for the tenant to retrieve the property.
  • Information as to what the landlord will do with the property if the tenant or owner does not recover it in time.
  • A statement that the landlord will charge the tenant or owner storage costs before returning the property, if that is the case.

After delivering the notice, the landlord must meet with tenants or owners who come to claim the property. If the landlord has stated her intent to sell the property at public auction, and the tenant or owner claims it and pays the associated storage and advertising costs of sale, the landlord must release the property to the owner.

If the property remains unclaimed past the deadline, and it is worth less than $700, the landlord can do what he wants with it. If it is worth more than $700, he must arrange to have it sold at public auction after publishing a notice of the sale. Both the landlord and the tenant can bid on the property.

After the property sells, the landlord can deduct applicable costs for storage and advertising and for conducting the sale. She must pay the remaining money to the county. The property owner has up to one year after the date the county received the money to claim it.