A useful guide for landlords on dealing with 'abandoned goods' left by the tenant at the end of a tenancy

Tenants leaving goods behind at the end of a tenancy can be a common problem for landlords; this article contains practical steps on how to deal with the issue of 'abandoned goods'.

On re-taking possession of a property at the end of a tenancy, if the landlord discovers that the tenant has left belongings behind, it might be assumed that the landlord now owns them. However in such circumstance, the landlord usually becomes an 'involuntary bailee', as they are in possession of the goods belonging to the tenant. This means that the landlord has various legal responsibilities and cannot necessarily deal with them as they see fit. In these situations the Torts (Interference with Goods) Act 1977 provides a useful procedure to help protect the landlord and reduces the risk of a costly claim against them.

Ordinarily, if a tenant abandons a property, you might expect that only unwanted goods would be left behind; however that is not necessarily the case. If the tenant is traceable, every effort should be made to contact them to arrange collection or receive confirmation that the goods can be sold or removed. If the tenant is unresponsive, an inspection of the property and a detailed inventory of items with photos should be prepared to prevent a retrospective claim that a valuable item has been sold. In some circumstances, it may be appropriate to obtain an independent valuation of individual items, particularly if you consider there is an item of value. You never know – that bag of abandoned books which has been gathering dust and cobwebs could contain Shakespeare's missing works! Unlikely as this would be, it is important to remember that the higher the value of goods, the greater the risk of an expensive claim.

Landlords should also satisfy themselves that the goods are actually owned by the tenant. In some cases, third parties may own or have claims over the goods, e.g. hire purchase companies.

Giving notice – steps to take

Under section 12(3) of the 1977 Act, if the landlord has made reasonable efforts to trace the tenant or other legal owner of the goods and has failed or if the landlord has given a reasonable period of notice under the Act he is allowed to sell the goods. Although the period of notice is not well defined, the means of delivery and content is set out in Schedule 1 of the Act:

  1. the notice must be in writing and either left at or posted to the former tenant's current address
  2. the name and address of the landlord must be specified
  3. sufficient details of the goods must be provided
  4. the address where the goods are held must be confirmed
  5. it must be stated that the goods are ready to be collected and a date must be given when they will be sold

The abandoned possessions can be stored elsewhere to ensure they are not damaged or destroyed. This allows the landlord to re-let the property in a lettable condition whilst the goods are dealt with. There is no set notice period, however the date specified in the notice must give the tenant a reasonable time to collect these items. If the tenant fails to collect the goods within this 'reasonable' period, the goods may be sold.

In Campbell v Redstone Mortgages Ltd [2014] EWHC 3081 (Ch) a claim for damages against an involuntary bailee was dismissed because a reasonable time had passed for the goods to be collected. In this case, the owner of the goods had attended the property on several occasions and notices had been served in accordance with the Act and the mortgage conditions. As the bailee had acted reasonably, the claim for damages was dismissed.

Selling the goods

If the tenant does not collect the goods and if the landlord decides to sell them, he must account to the tenant for the proceeds of sale. This account must be calculated on the basis that the best method of sale reasonably available was chosen. However, the landlord is able to deduct from the sale proceeds any costs incurred in arranging the sale. In addition landlords could consider whether they are able to offset storage costs and rent arrears against the proceeds.

Terms of the lease

As there is no guidance as to what is 'reasonable notice', the lease itself should be checked as it might specify the length of notice a landlord must give. In addition, a clause included in a contract as to what action may be taken in the event of abandoned goods will also assist landlords in these circumstances. The provisions in the lease will usually protect the landlord. However if the lease is unclear or there are particularly valuable goods, then following the steps in accordance with the Act provides further protection.

Importantly in the Campbell case, the contract made clear that if the possessions had not been removed within 7 days of the notice, any items left behind could be removed or sold.

Conclusion

Landlords should tread very carefully with regard to abandoned goods; simply disposing of them can create problems. If the procedure under the Act is not followed, a claim for the value of the goods could be made and disputes can arise over the nature and value of the goods if there is no record of what was there.

Although this guide is only a brief summary of the relevant issues and doesn't cover all possible situations, the procedure under the 1977 Act can be a useful way for landlords to avoid a costly and time-consuming claim. Specific legal advice should always be taken.

Christopher Brown and Ed Cracknell 

Christopher is a trainee in the property and housing litigation team working with senior associate Ed, who specialises in all aspects of property litigation and property dispute resolution.