Rules for disposing of tenant possessions

Rent it Right

By Inman News Feed
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted May. 24, 2012

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Rent it Right

Janet Portman
Inman News®

Q: When I moved out of the house I rented, I mistakenly left behind some prescription medicines. When I contacted the landlord, he said he'd thrown it all out. It's going to cost me a bundle to replace those medications. Do I have any recourse against the landlord? --Robert W.

A: All but a handful of states have detailed laws that explain how landlords may or must handle property left behind by tenants. Sometimes, the rules depend on the reason the tenant left: Those who move voluntarily, at the end of a lease, arguably had time to pack up; what they left behind is more likely to be unwanted, so the landlord has more leeway in disposing of it.

On the other hand, tenants who leave after getting a notice to pay or quit (or cure or quit), who break the lease and move unannounced, or who have been evicted, may not have had time to pack everything; some states make landlords handle any leftover belongings more carefully in these situations (though some take the opposite approach, reasoning that lease-breakers don't deserve special treatment).

State laws also consider the type of property left behind. Obvious junk, such as food and garbage, can always be thrown out. And in many states, abandoned vehicles are a special case; motor vehicle laws often step in and specify how a property owner may dispose of a junker. But items of obvious value -- electronics, tools, certain recreational equipment, and so on -- must be handled as specified by the statute.

In some states, landlords must attempt to contact the departed tenant, hold the items for a specified amount of time, and then dispose of them. Statutes that allow the landlord to sell the property may allow the landlord to keep the proceeds; in California, however, after deducting the cost of storage and sale (and any unpaid rent, but this requires a trip to court), the landlord must donate the balance to the county.

In other states, landlords can dispose of the property immediately.

So as you can see, there's quite a variation in state law approaches. If your state requires landlords to notify and store, you'll be interested in knowing whether prescription medicines would qualify as the type of item that should be kept, not tossed out. Few statutes address this issue directly; in Wisconsin, however, new legislation specifically mentions prescription medications. The law requires the landlord to hold them for seven days. Interestingly, there's no notification requirement; other property may be disposed of immediately as long as the landlord discloses this policy in the rental agreement. (Wis. Ann. Stat. Sec. 704.05 (5) (am).)

Let's suppose that your state statute requires landlords to hold, and notify tenants of, any non-garbage belongings left behind after a move-out like yours, and that your medications would qualify. If your landlord tossed the medicine in violation of the law, you may have a case against him. If the landlord didn't make good on your losses, you could enforce your right by taking your complaint to small claims court and suing for the value of the medicine.

Q: My tenant skipped out on his lease, leaving six months to go. I've found a replacement, and kept the original tenant's deposit, which just covered the time the unit was vacant. But now the replacement is behind on the rent. Can I get any rent money from the original tenant? --Mary B.

A: When tenants break a lease without legal justification, in most states landlords are required to use reasonable efforts to find a replacement. Once the landlord has rented to a new tenant, the old tenant's responsibility for rent for the rest of his or her lease term ends. In most states, renting to a replacement completely ends the original tenant's obligations -- the original tenant doesn't stay on as a guarantor of the replacement.

The state of Maryland, however, takes a unique approach, and one that is very landlord-friendly (Md. Real Prop. Law § 8-207.). In Maryland, an original tenant's lease-breaking is seen as an opportunity for the landlord to sublet the premises, not to retake possession and re-rent to a new tenant. In Maryland, the original tenant is not only liable for rent during the months that the landlord is seeking a replacement -- he remains on the hook for the rent, should the replacement tenant fail to pay.

This arrangement is to be expected when tenants and landlords intentionally create a sublease -- the original tenant is indeed a guarantor of the subtenant's performance if need be. For this reason, tenants choose their subtenants with great care. But an absconding tenant in Maryland can also be responsible for the financial performance of a replacement whom he has never met, as long as the landlord gives the original tenant notice of the replacement's failure to pay rent.

In practical terms, this provision might not do Maryland landlords much good, because it depends on being able to not only find, but collect from, the original tenant. Far too often, tenants leave unannounced and they're never heard from again, making it very hard to track them down, let alone sue them.

But one can imagine this statute having a real impact for tenants who break a lease in order to move into a just-purchased home. They may be willing to pay for a couple of months of rent while the landlord looks for a replacement, but they would probably be quite surprised to find themselves at the other end of a small claims lawsuit if the replacement leaves and the landlord is once again without the rent. It might be much easier to sue and collect from these newly planted, easy-to-find and judgment-worthy original tenants than to try to find the departed sub.

For tenants in Maryland, the lesson is clear: Unless you have a legally recognized reason to break a lease, do your best to find an acceptable replacement before leaving. Otherwise, you may learn later that you're responsible for the financial shortcomings of a stranger.

Janet Portman is an attorney and managing editor at Nolo. She specializes in landlord/tenant law and is co-author of "Every Landlord's Legal Guide" and "Every Tenant's Legal Guide." She can be reached at janet@inman.com.

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