The Landlord’s Guide to (Legally) Handling Tenant Abandonment

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Every real estate investor loves a quiet tenant. Quiet usually is synonymous with good, in that they don’t raise a fuss or cause noise pollution. We always want quiet. However, quiet is not always a good thing. Quiet can point to some ominous circumstances as well, and one of those is the issue of abandonment.

As real estate investors, our tenant concerns usually have to do with those who are difficult to evict. We think about the trouble-makers, not the silent absentees. Still, silence isn’t always a good indication. Whether your tenants are off on an extended vacation or have disappeared without a trace, due diligence is required to ensure that you don’t end up with a big problem down the line.

If you are in the long-term buy and hold side of the real estate investing business, you will more than likely deal with the scenario of abandonment or possible abandonment. You will most likely struggle with the decision-making process of “Do I enter the property or not? Do I take the property back or not” The situation of abandonment is only made worse when the tenant abandons possessions they no longer want as well. They leave behind furniture, books, magazines, clothes, records, paperwork, and even trash, and sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference between what is and is not trash!  

When faced with these types of issues, there are a few things to keep in mind.

Related: 3 Ways to Benefit From the Abandoned Possessions of Your Run-Away Tenant

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Tenant Privacy Rights

When it comes to tenant privacy, owners and managers need to make sure they’re playing by the rules. That means:

  • Give proper written notice before any property inspection
  • Avoid impromptu visits and inspecting the property too frequently
  • Don’t enter without permission or a tenant present
  • Don’t allow maintenance, services, contractors, or workmen in unaccompanied
  • Inspect at unreasonable hours of the day
  • Always include time and date on notices

As your tenants, they are guaranteed a right to a certain level of privacy. That’s good! But if the management isn’t attentive, valuing privacy can turn into neglect, both of the property and in keeping track of the tenant. We’re not talking about stalking here—but there are cases out there of tenants who just up and leave without a word, and that has to be investigated.

Are they on vacation? Did they move in with someone else? Are they in the hospital? Worse? Surprisingly, it can be difficult to find out. Owners find themselves in a situation where the tenant has vanished—along with their rent payments—and don’t know quite what to do. But never fear! If you find yourself with a disappearing tenant, you can take action.

Handling a Disappearing Tenant

There are circumstances in which management can enter the property without permission from the tenant. Generally, these are in emergencies in which person or property is in immediate danger (fires, burst pipes, medical emergencies, so on and so forth). In many places, that’s really it.

There are state laws that can allow for managers and landlord to enter the property during extended absence for maintenance reasons. In most places, this is seven days, but it does vary by state law and may be disallowed entirely.

The exception is if you suspect abandonment. Utilities being turned off, rent payments ceasing, neighbors noticing the tenant hasn’t been around or seeing them moving furniture, and being unable to reach and communicate with the tenant are all red flags of abandonment. If you suspect that the tenant has abandoned the property, the property can be entered legally without permission to verify the situation. Even if the property hasn’t in fact been abandoned, the evidence to suggest it is valid justification.

Still, verifying that the property was abandoned doesn’t solve your problem.

Related: How to Identify Abandoned Houses for Investing

Do You Have a Plan for Tenant Abandonment?

  • Anticipate it with your lease. At what point would you consider the property abandoned? Two weeks without occupancy or communication? Work an acceptable timeframe into your lease so you can plan for these instances. Just remember that it being in your lease doesn’t mean it trumps tenant-landlord law or personal property disposal laws.
  • Check for the keys. If the tenant left the keys behind, you can assume they’re forfeiting their occupancy. If they aren’t there and the property has clearly been abandoned, change your locks like you would after any tenant.
  • Survey the property. What was left behind by the tenant? Beware when too many personal belongings (if not all of them) are still in place. Tenants who abandon their rental usually take their things with them. Check to see what’s left—is it a few things? Just trash? How fresh is the food in the fridge or cabinets, if any? Remember to check into your state’s personal property disposal laws before throwing out anything.
  • Talk to an eviction attorney. The last thing you want is to end up in a lawsuit. When in doubt, consult an attorney on the best course of action in the case of abandonment. If the property is truly abandoned, move on as quickly as possible to clean the unit and fill the vacancy. Remember to document the process so the tenant doesn’t show back up and file a wrongful lockout claim.
  • Search for closure. If you can’t get in contact with the tenant themselves, see if you have any emergency contacts on hand. At the very least, you should be able to find out if they’ve moved out. More than just worrying about a rent payment, you can also determine their whereabouts and whether or not their loved ones are aware of the situation. While we don’t want to think about worst case scenarios, people do disappear under suspicious and tragic circumstances. If you can’t track down a contact and the tenant left their things in the property or there are otherwise suspicious circumstances, you may need to file a missing person’s report with the police.

Tenant abandonment can be incredibly frustrating, but as always, anticipating the problem beforehand, planning in advance, and knowing your local laws are the best preparation for any given situation. 

Have you ever dealt with a disappearing tenant? How do you deal with these types of situations?  

Share your experience in the comments below.

About Author

Chris Clothier

In 2005, Chris Clothier (G+) began working with passive real estate investors and has since helped more than 1,100 investors purchase over 3,400 investment properties in Memphis, Dallas and Houston through the Memphis Invest family of companies.

12 Comments

  1. Jerry W.

    A couple of thoughts. One is my rental application has emergency contact information for friends or relatives. If I am worried about the tenant having moved out or even being sick and unable to call for help, I call their emergency contact. I then enter to make a welfare check, and make a formal request of local law enforcement of know issues under the name of my tenant. Checks may include jail roster, accident reports, etc. Most of my tenants have their cell phone listed on the application as well. You can google their name for car accidents, and Facebook, and other information. Thanks for the article.

  2. Erik Nowacki

    Chris,

    a very timely topic. I just had one tenant here in Memphis disappear on me. Utilities are off, the place looks cleaned out, but no keys returned and no phonecall or note to the office that they were leaving.

    In addition, I just had another tenant in California disappear. Girlfriend was seen packing her stuff and leaving with baby. Tenant has not answered the phone or been seen on the property for several months. Girlfriend left door unlocked and the keys on the kitchen counter.

    I was just pondering what to do in these situations. In the Memphis property, I’m thinking about just changing the locks and making the unit ready for the next tenant as there’s nothing left inside the apartment. In the PRC (Peoples Republic of California), I have posted a Notice of Belief of Abandonment and I believe I have to wait a couple of weeks before cleaning up the mess left by the tenant.

    What’s frustrating is that either of these tenants could have called, texted or sent and e-mail simply stating that they are moving out. It’s not too much to ask for, is it?

    Just another adventure in landlording…

    Erik

  3. Christy Greene

    Thanks, Erik.

    As a newbie and reading all I can about Landlording and rentals, I truly appreciate how everyone not only shares the successes of Real Estate but also the vast amount of responsibility and headaches that can come with it. Thank you for your honest. It helps me really consider what I might be getting into. I am from (PRC) and it really is frustrating how California laws are designed to protect the renter and not the Landlord.
    Question: Did you put anything the lease that if they abandon the property with no notice that they lose their deposit or an “abandonment fee”? Is that even legal here?

    Thank you .

  4. Darren Sager

    Great article Chris. And great follow up remarks from BP members. With everything that I have in my lease I have to admit that the one thing I don’t think I’ve covered in depth is abandonment. I have the other bases covered (like ways to enter, notice if they leave for more than 7 days, etc.) but an exact gameplay laid out should they leave permanently without notice I’ll have to admit is not up to my standards. This was a great wake up call that I need to get it done and put it in there. Thanks!

  5. Darren Sager

    Great article Chris. And great follow up remarks from BP members. With everything that I have in my lease I have to admit that the one thing I don’t think I’ve covered in depth is abandonment. I have the other bases covered (like ways to enter, notice if they leave for more than 7 days, etc.) but an exact gameplay laid out should they leave permanently without notice I’ll have to admit is not up to my standards. This was a great wake up call that I need to get it done and put it in there. Thanks!

  6. NA Rodriguez

    Good afternoon,

    I’m a new investor in Houston Texas and need some advise on how to handle this situation. I have a client who lives in Mexico and owns a home here in Houston who is ready to sell. The situation is that the owner rented out their home to person “A” who was under a contract, paid their monthly rent through the bank and then moved out without informing the owner. Person “A” found another person to take over monthly payments and was pocketing the money from person “B”. The owners found out about this when the rent was not being paid in full any more and only the taxes where being paid. The owners finally got a hold of person “B” to find out what was going on and could not get any cooperation. Person “B” refused to sign a contract and pay the full amount of rent. Any advise on how to handle this situation or referrals to a company that could help evict these people would be greatly appreciated.

    Thank you in advance for any help with this matter.

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