When tenants move out of a rental unit, they are required to also move their personal property. (Personal property is everything which a person can own except for land. Personal property is also referred to as personal possessions or personal belongings.) California law has three different procedures which a landlord may follow to remove and dispose of personal property left in a rental unit after a tenant has vacated. A landlord who has properly followed one of the procedures cannot be held liable for any damages related to the property.
The three procedures apply to the following three situations:
Which procedure a landlord should follow in any particular case depends upon the situation.
Some general guidelines for all situations.
Store property safely . . .
When a tenant has left personal property in a rental unit, the landlord should safely store the property. A landlord may choose to leave the property in the rental unit. But if the unit may be rented soon, the landlord should store the property elsewhere. Wherever the landlord chooses to store the property, it must be kept in a safe place, where the property will not be damaged or stolen. In storing the property, the landlord must use reasonable care to keep it safe. If property is lost or damaged, and if the landlord did not act in a deliberate or negligent manner in storing and caring for the property, the landlord will not be liable for any storage related loss.
Act reasonably . . .
In deciding whether or not a particular case fits into the lost property situation or the abandoned property situation, a landlord is held by the law to a certain standard. And in deciding who the property owners are or might be, the landlord is held to that same standard. The standard is: A landlord must act reasonably, and the landlord's actions must be based on a reasonable belief.
The law defines a "reasonable belief" as the actual knowledge or belief that a prudent person would have, given the facts then known by that person. Generally a landlord is not required to conduct an investigation to obtain more facts. But, if a landlord has information which indicates that an investigation would provide more facts about the identity of the property owner, and if the cost of the investigation would be reasonable in view of the probable value of the property, then the landlord should make the investigation. If an investigation should have been made but wasn't, then the landlord is held to a higher standard - the reasonableness of the landlord's actions would be judged as if the landlord had conducted an investigation and had known the facts which the investigation would have revealed.
What all this means is that in deciding whether the property left behind is abandoned or lost, the landlord must keep in mind all of the facts that the landlord knows or ought to know about the situation. And in deciding who the property owner or owners might be, the landlord also must keep in mind all of the facts that the landlord knows or ought to know. For example, if the landlord knows that a telephone call or two, or a search of public records, would give the landlord more information about who the property owner is, and if the value of the property is significantly more than the cost of the phone calls and public records search, the landlord should make the calls and do the search.
Avoid unlawful self-help ...
When a landlord disposes of personal property by properly following one of the three legal procedures, the landlord can avoid the possibility of being held liable for unlawfully taking or converting the property.
If a landlord goes about disposing of the property in some other way, resorting to self-help methods, the landlord could be liable for money damages.
Please remember . . .
The steps outlined in this legal guide are only for situations where personal property has been left in a rental unit which has been vacated by the tenant. If the tenant has not vacated the unit, a landlord has no legal right to dispose of personal property in the unit. If a landlord believes that a unit has been abandoned by the tenant, the landlord must follow certain legal steps to declare the rental unit abandoned. Only after the rental unit is legally considered abandoned can the landlord dispose of personal belongings left in it on that basis.
SITUATION NO. 1: Where The Tenant Has Requested Return of Property
Within 18 days after moving out of a rental unit, a tenant may write the former landlord requesting that the personal possessions left in the rental unit be returned. When a tenant has properly followed all the steps of this procedure, the landlord is required by law to return the possessions to the tenant, and also becomes liable for damages if the possessions are not returned. If a tenant is unable to take the steps for requesting return of property, the tenant may authorize someone else to act as the tenant's representative. The landlord should treat the representative as if she or he was the tenant.
The tenant must make a written request, which must include a description of the property left behind, and must give the landlord the tenant's current mailing address.
The landlord may charge the tenant reasonable costs for removing and storing the tenant's property. A landlord is only permitted to recover costs which are reasonably related to the cost of removing the tenant's property from the rental unit and storing it. The storage costs charged cannot be more than the fair rental value of the space reasonably required to store the property. That is, if all the tenant's property would fit in a storage space unit of 10 square feet, the landlord is not entitled to receive payment for the cost of renting 15 square feet.
However, before the tenant becomes legally obligated to pay those costs, the landlord must have followed certain steps. To properly claims costs, the landlord must, within five days after receiving the tenant's written demand for return of the property, make a written demand on the tenant to pay costs. The written demand must individually list all the costs which the landlord is asking the tenant to pay, including both the amount of each charge and what each charge is for. The landlord may either give the demand for payment of costs to the tenant in person, or may mail it to the tenant at the mailing address provided by the tenant.
The tenant should pay the landlord the reasonable costs of removing and storing the property. Next, the landlord and tenant should talk to each other and agree upon to a time for the tenant to claim the property. Both the landlord and the tenant must agree to a time that is no more than 72 hours (three days) after the time when the tenant paid the landlord's costs.
If no costs were paid, either because the landlord did not demand any costs or because the landlord did not properly demand costs, the tenant and the landlord should agree to have the tenant claim the property within a reasonable time after the tenant's request letter was received by the landlord. The law assumes that three days is a reasonable time in the absence of evidence to the contrary.
Even in the best of circumstances, things can go wrong -- for instance a landlord who followed all the correct steps and released the property to a tenant might later be contacted by a second tenant demanding return of the same property. In that case, if a landlord has followed the law, the landlord cannot be held liable even if he or she gave the property to the wrong person. If a landlord has complied with the law, then the law protects the landlord in this situation.
Furthermore, a landlord could receive two conflicting demands for the same personal property from former tenants who rented the same unit. In this situation the landlord must give the property to the tenant who first properly requested return of the property. In such a case, the law will not require the landlord to guess or to decide who is the true owner of the property.
A landlord who has improperly retained personal property after a tenant has properly followed the steps to request that the property be returned can be required to pay the tenant actual damages up to the value of the property retained, and up to $250 as punitive damages for each violation, as well as the tenant's attorney's fees and court costs if the tenant wins in court.
SITUATION NO. 2: Where The Property Is Apparently Abandoned
To dispose of apparently abandoned property without risking liability for damages to the landlord, a landlord must follow the steps below. If the tenant left the unit because of a court-ordered eviction, the timing of the steps is slightly different. This difference is discussed below in the bold bracketed [ ] sections.
Steps to follow with abandoned property.
To dispose of personal possessions which apparently have been abandoned, the landlord should take the following steps:
What should the notice say?
Under California law, the notice must contain certain information. Sample notices (one to a former tenant and one to a person other than a former tenant) are attached. A landlord may use this sample notice, but will have to fill in additional information, such as the description of the property, the place where the property may be claimed, and a date by which the property must be claimed. These are the legal requirements:
1.A description of the property.
The property should be described both in sufficient detail, and in a way which gives all possible owners enough information for them to determine whether or not the property might be theirs. The legal limitations of liability provided to a landlord do not apply to property which is not described in the notice. However, if the property includes a container (for example a trunk, or box) which is secured (that is locked, fastened or tied, in a way which would keep anyone from easily getting into it), then the contents of the container need not be described in the notice.
2.A deadline for claiming property.
A date must be specified by which the potential owner must claim the property. The date given must be at least 15 days after the notice was personally delivered or, if the notice was mailed, a date not less than 18 days after the notice was mailed.
3. Charge for storage.
The property owner may be charged for the reasonable cost of storage of the property, and that the charges must be paid before the property is released to the owner.
4. Where the property is located.
This should include both the address where the property was left and, if different, when the property may be claimed by the owner.
How should the notice be delivered?
The notice may be delivered to the tenant or other possible owner by either:
In addition, if the landlord has reason to believe that the notice sent to the person's last know address will not be received by the person, the landlord also must send the notice to any other address, if known, where it would be reasonable to expect the person to receive the notice.
And, if the notice is sent by mail to the former tenant, one copy of the notice also must be mailed to the tenant at the address of the rental unit that the tenant vacated.
How should storage costs be charged?
If a former tenant claims the property, the landlord may charge the tenant the reasonable costs of storage for all personal property left at the rental unit, but only to the extent that the tenant has not paid those costs to the landlord previously.
But, if an owner other than the former tenant claims a portion of the property, the landlord may only require that person to pay the reasonable costs of storage for the property that person claims.
In any event, the landlord cannot charge more than one person for the same costs.
If the landlord has stored the personal property at the rental unit, the cost of the storage must be the fair rental value of the space reasonably required for such storage for the term of storage.
What is the landlord's liability?
Once the landlord has given the proper notices, whether a landlord is liable to anyone for the property depends upon whether the property was released to someone or whether the property was disposed of in another way.
Property was released:
If the property is released to the former tenant, then the landlord is not liable to any person for that property.
If the property is released to someone other than a former tenant, and if the landlord reasonably believed that person to be the owner of the property, the landlord is not liable for that property to:
Property disposed of in another manner (not released):
If the landlord reasonably believes that the total resale value of all the property is less than $300, the landlord may dispose of the property in any manner. However, if the landlord reasonably believes that the total resale value of all of the property is $300 or more, the property must be sold at a public sale by competitive bidding.
If the property is disposed of in either of those ways, the landlord is not liable for the property to:
SITUATION NO. 3:
To dispose of apparently lost property (legal owner is unknown) without risking liability to the owner, a landlord must follow these steps:
If the value of the property is reasonably believed to be $100 or more, the landlord must:
NOTICE: We attempt to make our legal guides accurate as of the date of publication, but they are only guidelines and not definitive statements of the law. Questions about the law's application to particular cases should be directed to a specialist.
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