Tenant Abandoned Car: California Property Law

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Usually, or at least in the best-case scenario, when a tenant leaves a rental property, the only personal property she leaves behind is a little dust or the bottle opener that fell behind the stove. When the personal property left behind escalates from pocket change that escaped the couch cushions to an abandoned vehicle, the law dictates that landlords should first determine whether the vehicle is actually abandoned and then communicate with the former tenant before proceeding.

Is It Abandoned?

If a tenant left a vehicle on property in California, the first thing the landlord must do is determine whether the vehicle is legally considered abandoned. In the Golden State, arriving at this determination basically boils down to two questions:

  1. Has the tenancy been terminated? This can happen via eviction, by arriving at the end date of a lease agreement or otherwise terminating that agreement.
  2. Has the tenant actually moved out of the rental property?    

When these two questions can both be answered with a definitive "yes," the property left behind can be considered abandoned property in California. When a tenant leaves personal belongings on a rental property after the lease is terminated and the tenant has moved out, California's Civil Code Section 1983 sets out in detail the procedures the landlord must follow before disposing of abandoned property.

Storage of the Vehicle

Once the landlord determines that the property is abandoned, she needs to inventory the property and ensure that it's stored in a safe location. As long as it's secure, that location may very well be the rental unit parking spot where the abandoned vehicle was left. After securing the vehicle, sometimes the most effective way to handle the abandoned property is with a simple phone call from the landlord to the former tenant resulting in an amicable arrangement.

On the subject of storage expenses, rental property owners do have the right to charge the former tenant for these costs under Civil Code Section 1987. Even more, the landlord can hold the property until those reasonable expenses have been paid. If the tenant collects the property within two days of moving out of the rental unit, though, they are not obligated to pay for these storage expenses.

Notice of Abandoned Property

If no agreement can be reached for the owner of the vehicle to remove it from the premises, the California Civil Code requires the landlord to send written notice to the owner of the abandoned property. The notice must contain specific information, including a description of the abandoned property; the location at which the former tenant can claim the property; a time-frame in which the former tenant must claim the property; whether the tenant will be charged for storage; a statement of reasonable storage costs and a statement that the property will be sold or disposed of if not claimed in time.

Fortunately, Civil Code Section 1984 includes a template that landlords are free to use when creating this notice. It essentially outlines the abandoned property owner's right to reclaim the property. Landlords have the option of hand-delivering this notice, emailing it or sending it to the tenant's last known address or what is believed to be their current address. If personally delivered, the law requires the landlord to store the property for a minimum of 15 days, or 18 days if the notice is mailed or emailed. The original lease agreement cannot shorten these terms, though the lease may provide a longer time-frame.

The Towing Option

For abandoned vehicles in particular, California Vehicle Code Section 22658 gives landlords the option to have the vehicle towed at the former tenant's expense. The vehicle must meet at least one of these conditions before being towed:

  • There must be a clear sign on the premises prohibiting public parking.
  • The vehicle must have been issued a notice of parking violation at least 96 hours prior towing.
  • The vehicle is nonoperational, and at least 24 hours have passed since law enforcement has been notified of that nonoperational vehicle.

Selling, Keeping or Disposing of the Vehicle

In California, what the landlord is able to do with abandoned property, including vehicles that are not claimed in time depends on the value of the property. If it's worth less than $700, California Civil Code Section 1988 allows the rental property owner to keep it or dispose of it by any legally available methods.

Most often, though, a vehicle will be worth more than $700. In this case, the landlord has the right to sell the abandoned property at a public auction. In a rather old-school touch pursuant to Section 6066 of California Government Code, the law requires that the landlord must provide at least five days' notice of the sale in a local newspaper with general circulation. During this time-frame, the former tenant can claim the vehicle, though he is obligated to pay any requested storage costs plus advertising fees before collecting the property.

The sale isn't necessarily a boon for the landlord, either. If the vehicle is sold at auction, the seller can use the profits only to cover the costs of storage and advertising. Civil Code Section 1988 says that the balance must be turned over to the treasury of the county where the sale took place within 30 days. From here, the former tenant (or the actual owner of the abandoned property, if different) can claim that money within one year, provided the owner makes a successful application to the county treasurer or an equivalent official.

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About the Author

As a freelance writer and small business owner with a decade of experience, Dan has contributed legal- and finance-oriented content to diverse sources including Chron, Fortune, Zacks.com, Motley Fool and MSN Money, among others.