Unattended death of a tenant

19 Replies

I am looking for some advise on an unattended death situation.  I have a tenant who was a hermit. No family members, friends, or neighbors noticed she was missing. She apparently passed away in bed, and it could have been up to 2 months before she was discovered. I just found this out and still have to here from the coroner and get a certificate of death.  I'm really concerned with the odor that has been left behind.  I'm already planning on tearing out all the carpet etc.

Has anyone dealt with odor mitigation in a situation like this???

To make matters worse, this was the first rental I bought about 8 years ago. This lady was my one and only renter in this place up to now. I was totally green and had no idea how to be a landlord. I now, of course, keep good records, but I now cannot find the original lease!

I live in Colorado.  Anyone deal with a scenario like this?

Any suggestions are highly appreciated!

Why do you need to find the lease? Her deposit will go towards rehab although it probably won't be enough. On the plus side this might be only tenant you ever have that doesn't complain about not getting their deposit back.

A few years ago I had a similar situation where a tenant of mine died. He didn't die in the unit but he did leave the worst smelling apartment I ever entered in my life. He smoked 2 packs of cigarettes a day inside which left a thick layer of nicotine on the walls. The smell gave everybody who entered a headache within a few minutes. 

I thought I was going to have to rip everything out including the drywall but instead I bought some Zinsser BIN shellac and painted the entire apt, everything got covered even the kitchen cabinets. I replaced all appliances, ceiling fan, new stove, fridge etc. Anything not nailed down got tossed. After new carpet it was like new again, no smell, I couldn't believe it!

Zinsser isn't cheap but it's worth a try. And wear a charcoal mask as the shellac kills brain cells fast, good luck!

p.s. Here is a link to the rehab that I posted at the time: Before and After

I agree there's no reason to care about the lease. Even if it did exist, I assume you never signed a renewal or extension so it is now a month-to-month tenancy. You can't give notice because she's dead.

The bigger issue is, how do you get rid of the stuff? If she truly had no relatives or friends, I suppose you could donate it or dump it and nobody would ever care. Just be careful. I had a similar tenant that lived in a rental for nearly 30 years and we didn't know of any family. Turns out she had a sibling and a couple nieces several states away that wanted to retrieve her belongings.

Once she's out, renovate and move on.

Originally posted by @Nathan G. :

I agree there's no reason to care about the lease. Even if it did exist, I assume you never signed a renewal or extension so it is now a month-to-month tenancy. You can't give notice because she's dead.

The bigger issue is, how do you get rid of the stuff? If she truly had no relatives or friends, I suppose you could donate it or dump it and nobody would ever care. Just be careful. I had a similar tenant that lived in a rental for nearly 30 years and we didn't know of any family. Turns out she had a sibling and a couple nieces several states away that wanted to retrieve her belongings.

Once she's out, renovate and move on.

out our way and not sure in other states but death automatically cancels the lease to both parties.. As for the smell having been in the rehab / distressed real estate space.. we have dealt with hoarder houses.. or houses that are covered in nicotine like above.

most of the time kilz works or something like that.. in some instances we had to go to studs.. and in many instances we just bulldozed the house.  

Sucks and I’ve Had this happen . Don’t assume there’s no relatives and you can just dump her stuff ! The coroner will be searching for the next of kin and if found that person may have rights to the unit and rights to the property . Work with the coroner and know your laws . In many states death does not necessarily mean the lease ends . You may have to hold that crap for up to 30 days . 

I bought a house in Las Vegas 5 years ago and the prior owner left her husband in his room for weeks in 100+ temps after he passed away because she wanted to collect a couple more s.s.i payments. She was a hoarder and had about 20 cats from what the neighbors said. The smell was eye watering and intense. After removing 5 40yd dumpsters we stripped down the interior cleaned with bleach and as @Jay Hinrichs said we sealed the entire interior with Kilz. This included the concrete slab. 

As far as the belongings each state has different laws concerning this. Here in California we have to wait for few weeks before throwing out. I usually just get the tenant to sign a doc of abandonment once I express that they will be charged for debris removal. I your case I would call your local tenant advocate group for advice.

If the body was there for 2 months before it was discovered the smell is only part of your problem.  The body, at that point, would have distributed liquids all over the place.  Even if she was in bed I'd imagine the body fluid and decomposition liquids would have dripped onto the flooring underneath the bed and gotten into the joists and such.  That's biological hazards there.  You've got to worry about proper cleanup because if there is still stuff left in the flooring, ceiling, or joists, the smell will just keep coming back.  Death has a very particular smell to it..  

@Andrew George Dennis

I’m curious if you received rent the last two months, and when the last time you entered the unit.

I would call ServPro or another company specializing in dead body cleanup.

Bowl of vinegar in the room, sprinkle baking soda on the flooring and any spaces that may have been exposed. Leave for several days, vacuum the baking soda, change the vinegar, air out. Might help?

What I did was roll up the carpet , took it to my house laid it in my driveway . Pressure washed the black areas off the carpet and sprayed febreze . I then took it back to the unit unrolled it out again and stuck a for rent sign in the front yard . Had a tenant In it a week later . Cha Ching

Originally posted by @Nathan G. :

I agree there's no reason to care about the lease. Even if it did exist, I assume you never signed a renewal or extension so it is now a month-to-month tenancy. You can't give notice because she's dead.

The bigger issue is, how do you get rid of the stuff? If she truly had no relatives or friends, I suppose you could donate it or dump it and nobody would ever care. Just be careful. I had a similar tenant that lived in a rental for nearly 30 years and we didn't know of any family. Turns out she had a sibling and a couple nieces several states away that wanted to retrieve her belongings.

Once she's out, renovate and move on.

Originally posted by @Dennis M. :

Sucks and I’ve Had this happen . Don’t assume there’s no relatives and you can just dump her stuff ! The coroner will be searching for the next of kin and if found that person may have rights to the unit and rights to the property . Work with the coroner and know your laws . In many states death does not necessarily mean the lease ends . You may have to hold that crap for up to 30 days . 

Originally posted by @Anthony Wick :

@Andrew George Dennis

I’m curious if you received rent the last two months, and when the last time you entered the unit.

I would call ServPro or another company specializing in dead body cleanup.

I'm now missing rent from April as well as May and now June is coming up.  I'm planning on talking to a lawyer to see if I can collect missed rent from the estate.  I have not dealt with this kind of thing before, so not sure what to expect.  The police were able to find the ladies sister, so now I'm talking to her about what she wants to do with the stuff left in the unit.

I went by the unit last Sunday and saw all the notices I had served still hanging on the door.  The neighbors said her car hadn't moved in about a month.  I also noticed an odor. I cracked open the door a few inches and that was when the wall of odor hit me.  Called the police right after that.

I plan on calling some clean up places, but I've heard from the coroner they tend to take advantage of people with pricing, and they are not a regulated industry.  I thought Serv Pro just fixed damage from flooding and such?

It's pretty morbid but according to the coroner you can cut the carpet out where the body was and dispose of it according to the standards of the county.  Apparently you have to use a special sterile bag and take it to a specific place for disposal, or you can be fined.

Originally posted by @Robert Rayford :

I bought a house in Las Vegas 5 years ago and the prior owner left her husband in his room for weeks in 100+ temps after he passed away because she wanted to collect a couple more s.s.i payments. She was a hoarder and had about 20 cats from what the neighbors said. The smell was eye watering and intense. After removing 5 40yd dumpsters we stripped down the interior cleaned with bleach and as @Jay Hinrichs said we sealed the entire interior with Kilz. This included the concrete slab. 

As far as the belongings each state has different laws concerning this. Here in California we have to wait for few weeks before throwing out. I usually just get the tenant to sign a doc of abandonment once I express that they will be charged for debris removal. I your case I would call your local tenant advocate group for advice.

 OMG that sounds so totally nasty I can't even imagine!  Was the smell of everything really gone after all that?  

I would stop worrying about how to collect back rent and focus on getting her stuff out, turning the unit around, and getting it rented at market rate again.

If you had proper processes in place, you would have found her within a week or two of rent being due back in April. After two weeks of no payment and no communication, I recommend you stop by the unit with a key. If nobody answers the door, go in and check. Peek in windows. Talk to neighbors. There's no reason to wait a month or longer.

Some tenants will pack their bags and move out in the middle of the night without any communication. If the tenant has not paid rent but the 10th day of the month, I am physically going to the property to verify they still live there and that they are alive. It doesn't make sense to keep posting notices on their door or continue calling and emailing.

Even now, I would consider moving her belongings into storage so you can get the unit turned around. then you can focus on finding family members to come pay the back rent and the moving and storage costs. A large storage unit will cost you less than $150 a month but you can start collecting rent so it dramatically reduces your expenses and losses.

Originally posted by @Nathan G. :

I would stop worrying about how to collect back rent and focus on getting her stuff out, turning the unit around, and getting it rented at market rate again.

If you had proper processes in place, you would have found her within a week or two of rent being due back in April. After two weeks of no payment and no communication, I recommend you stop by the unit with a key. If nobody answers the door, go in and check. Peek in windows. Talk to neighbors. There's no reason to wait a month or longer.

Some tenants will pack their bags and move out in the middle of the night without any communication. If the tenant has not paid rent but the 10th day of the month, I am physically going to the property to verify they still live there and that they are alive. It doesn't make sense to keep posting notices on their door or continue calling and emailing.

Even now, I would consider moving her belongings into storage so you can get the unit turned around. then you can focus on finding family members to come pay the back rent and the moving and storage costs. A large storage unit will cost you less than $150 a month but you can start collecting rent so it dramatically reduces your expenses and losses.

Regarding processes, you are 100% correct.  Aside from this one unit I rented 8 years ago, I only have one other rental that I recently acquired.  Like many new landlords, I'm learning the hard way that you have to stay on top of this stuff like clockwork.  Thanks for the suggestions.

Just thought I would mention that after looking into this a bit more, it looks like there is a good chance that my insurance company will cover the cost of clean up and possibly even mitigating the odor.  I don't believe anyone else mentioned this as a possibility, so maybe it will help someone else.