How to Handle a Tenant's Abandoned Property in California

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Just like renters in the other 49 states, sometimes tenants in California leave behind more than just memories and unexplainable carpet stains when they move out. Fortunately for the landlords left to deal with the aftermath, the state's Civil Code is a lot easier to make sense of (and doesn't smell as weird). When dealing with a tenant's abandoned property in California, the Civil Code clearly explains the steps property owners need to take to identify the property, offer the former tenant the right to reclaim it and, finally, get rid of it.

Make Sure It's Abandoned

Section 1983 of the California Civil Code offers a handy, straightforward definition of what is legally considered abandoned personal property in a rental unit. To determine if what's left behind is really abandoned property, two key qualifiers must be met. First, the landlord must determine that the tenancy has been actually terminated. In California, tenancy is terminated if the tenant has undergone an eviction from the premises or if the tenant and landlord have reached the end of the lease agreement period without renewing the lease.

Second, the landlord must ensure that the tenant has actually moved out of the rental property, which is a little different from the termination of the tenancy. This means that the tenant has fully, physically vacated the rental property as a resident. If both of these qualifiers are met, the landlord must store the property in a safe and secure location.

Provide Proper Notice

Once the landlord has determined that the property meets the legal definition of abandoned property, the same law dictates that he give to the former tenant a specific notice of the former tenant's right to reclaim his abandoned property. It must contain a list of specific information, including the name of the former tenant; the address of the rental premises; when the premises were vacated; and the name, contact information and address of the landlord. It also must describe the property in a manner reasonably adequate to permit the owner of the property to identify it. If the landlord does not specifically describe all of the abandoned property, he will not be protected from any liability that arises if the property not described is disposed of.

In the document, the former tenant must also be told exactly where to claim the abandoned property, should he choose to claim it. The landlord must advise the former tenant that he may be charged for reasonable storage expenses before he is able to claim the abandoned property, if the landlord has incurred charges for any storage expenses. When determining this amount, the key word here is reasonable.

Return of Abandoned Property

Additionally, the Right to Reclaim notice must also include a date by which the abandoned property must be claimed. By California law, this date can be no less than 15 days after the notice is personally delivered or 18 days from when the notice is delivered by mail or email. However, if the lease provides for a longer time period to claim abandoned property, the landlord cannot shorten that period. The landlord will also need to include a section that states that the abandoned property will be sold or disposed of, if not picked up within the provided timeframe.

The document may be delivered by hand, by mail or by email, if the former tenant previously provided the property owner with an email address. If delivered by mail, the landlord may use the tenant's last known address or the address at which they have reason to believe the former tenant is currently residing. To help landlords cover all of this required information, California Civil Code Section 1984 contains a template for this notice, which is available online and is free to use.

Sell, Trash or Tow

If the 15- to 18-day period passes, and the former tenant has not claimed the abandoned property, the rental property owner has a few options. He can keep the property, sell it or dispose of it. In the case of the former, landlords may keep the property to use as they please if it is valued at less than $700. This is the property owner's right, as is disposing of the property in a legal manner appropriate to the type of item. The California Civil Code dictates that the property must be sold if it's valued at over $700. This route gets a little more complex, as the items must be sold via public auction. Even before that happens, the landlord must post a notice of intent to sell the abandoned property at public auction by taking out an ad in a local newspaper with general circulation at least five days before the time of sale.

A few things can happen from there. At any point before the time of sale, the former tenant or owner of the abandoned property has the right to claim the items. She won't have to pay the auction price, of course, but is still obligated to pay applicable storage costs and advertising expenses incurred by the landlord. And landlords shouldn't get too excited about selling the former tenant's abandoned property at auction; while the landlord can use the proceeds of the sale to cover the costs of storage and advertising expenses, he must hand over any leftover profits to the treasury of the county where the sale took place.

Removing Abandoned Vehicles

When it comes to a tenant's abandoned vehicle, things are a little different under California Vehicle Code Section 22658. Property owners are authorized to remove abandoned vehicles from private property so long as a sign prohibiting public parking is clearly posted; the vehicle was issued a parking violation at least 96 hours prior; or the vehicle is inoperable. Otherwise, cars are subject to the same rules for keeping, trashing or selling abandoned property whether they fall over or under $700 in value.

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