tenant skips rent and disappears

If you suspect that your renter has disappeared and has no intention of returning to the rental property, you need to follow the appropriate steps before moving forward with re-renting the property.

Before taking any moves towards re-renting the property, you need to check your state and local laws regarding rental property abandonment.  Complying with these laws will help ensure that the landlord is back to re-renting the property and recouping lost income as soon as possible.  Failure to follow these rental laws can result in fines and legal actions against you and your business.

Why Tenants Skip Rent or Disappear

Tenants tend to vanish because they are behind on rent or owe other unpaid fees, are facing an eviction, or don’t want to go through a legal lease-breaking process. Currently, with the COVID-19 pandemic, record unemployment has been a driving force behind drops in rent payments. If a tenant belives they cannot pay rent indefinitely, they may decide to skip rent and move unannounced. There is also the chance that something horrible happened to your tenant, like death or kidnapping, or that your tenant is running from some other dangerous situation.

If you believe your tenant’s disappearance is the result of criminal activity, contact the police immediately. You will most likely be able to move forward with an eviction or abandonment process, but working with the police will ensure you receive their permission without tampering with a potential crime scene.

In most cases, landlords deal with tenant abandonment due to a choice made by the tenant to leave the property without contacting the landlord. If this is the case, follow these steps to establish abandonment and re-lease the property.

Step 1: Establish abandonment

You cannot just assume that because your tenant is behind on rent and you haven’t heard from him a few days that the property is truly abandoned.  They could just be a poor communicator with the intention of returning despite the late rent and/or late fees.

You need to clearly establish abandonment in order to meet your state’s legal requirements.

How to establish abandonment:

A tenant may move out and leave you a note saying his intention to never return. Or perhaps the neighbors witnessed the tenant moving in the middle of the night. Other times, you simply might not be able to get ahold of the tenant for an extended period of time.

If you are unsure about whether the tenant has truly abandoned the property, find the answers to these questions from RentPrep:

  • Is the tenant behind in paying the rent? Many states won’t consider a rental abandoned if the rent is current.
  • Are the utilities shut off? A quick call to the utility company will provide you with this information, however, this also may be a coincidence for nonpayment and not necessarily abandonment.
  • Is there anything left in the rental unit, like furniture or clothes? If there are valuable items left behind, it’s less likely to be abandoned than if you find garbage or rotting food.
  • Did the neighbors notice anything significant? If others witnessed a moving truck at the property the other day, or the tenant told them they were leaving, it helps to solidify other evidence of abandonment.
  • Has a change of address been submitted to the post office? A quick visit to the local post office will help you figure it out.
  • What do the tenant’s emergency contacts say? You must get in touch with the tenant’s emergency contacts to see if they offer any insights into the tenant’s absence.

No single factor is conclusive—instead, you must consider several things before you can conclude that the property is abandoned. It’s a fine line between a tenant abandoning a property and simply being gone for a while. Unusual circumstances, such as an extended vacation or business trip, a hospital stay or even jail time can make it seem as if the tenant has abandoned the property when legally they are still in possession as long as they have not broken the lease terms.

Step 2: Notify the Tenant

In order to officially establish abandonment and terminate a lease, a landlord might have to notify the renter about the belief of abandonment.

For example, in California, if you if you believe a tenant has abandoned the property with no intention of returning, you must provide an official notice to the tenant at the tenant’s last known address stating your belief that the property has been abandoned ( Section 1951.3 of the CA Civil Code). This “Notice of Belief of Abandonment” gives the tenant 15 days to respond that the property is not abandoned otherwise the lease will be officially terminated. If a lease is terminated due to abandonment, any unpaid rent and fees are still the responsibility of the tenant.

Civil Law Self-Help Center warns landlords to be extra careful when dealing with an abandoned property, “unless your tenant has surrendered or abandoned possession of the rental property, you must file an eviction case in order to remove the tenant!  (NRS 118A.480.)  If you lock the tenant out of the property, use force or threats to remove the tenant, or terminate the tenant’s utilities or services, you could be sued by the tenant and punished by the court.”

Most landlord forums advise you to work with an attorney familiar with landlord-tenant laws in your state when dealing with a disappearing tenant.

Can I just evict a missing tenant?

In order to establish abandonment, one of the criteria a landlord must prove is that a renter is behind on rent a certain number of days.

Under typical circumstances, a landlord may also choose to also move forward with a legal eviction if a tenant has not paid rent in a certain number of days. 

The normal process goes as follows:

A Pay Rent or Quit Notice usually gives tenants 3-5 days to pay rent or move out (“quit”).  If the tenant does neither in the designated timeline, you can move forward with filing an eviction. The only problem with delivering a Pay Rent or Quit Notice can arise if a tenant does not receive the notice because he abandoned the property. This can severely delay the eviction process, which is why some landlords will try to establish a belief of abandonment to terminate the lease and gain writ of possession over the property.

Current eviction moratoriums will further complicate matters. You will need to keep federal and state guidelines in mind, and potentially seek legal advice on how best to proceed in these unusual circumstances.

The Lease

Your lease agreement should include language that defines abandoned property terms and what steps you will take to establish abandonment. Make sure these lease terms meet your state and local laws and have been reviewed by an attorney.

What Do Landlords Do With Abandoned Tenant Property?

Besides the residence that might have been abandoned, if your tenants left personal property behind when they left unexpectedly, you have to follow your state laws for handling abandoned tenant property.  

Typically, a landlord has to itemize the abandoned items, store the property, and notify the tenant of the itemized property and where it is stored. If the landlord fails to hear from the tenant after a certain amount of time, the landlord can sell the items to pay for the storage and issue any remaining money to the state. Check your state and local laws for specifics on how to handle abandoned tenant property in your state.

Avoid Disappearing Tenant Nightmares

The confusing laws regarding adornment rental property can be a nightmare for any landlord or property manager. Sticking to thorough tenant screening gives you the best chances of avoiding these types of situations.  

Past landlord references will be key in identifying whether or not your rental applicant has a history of abandonment. You can also check a rental applicant’s criminal background to see if any evictions or lawsuits have been filed about past due rent (or any other unpaid bills for that matter).  Also making sure a rental applicant has a reasonable debt-to-income ratio, found on a credit report, can give you an idea about a tenant’s handle on their finances.

This article was originally published in Oct. 2017 and has been updated.

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