If you are a residential landlord, you cannot take or keep any of a tenant's belongings until the rental agreement has ended. If you wrongfully take a tenant's personal belongings while the tenant is still legally renting from you, you may be liable for damages and your actions may relieve the tenant of liability for unpaid rent or other kinds of claims you might have. After a rental agreement has ended, however, you have the right to dispose of a tenant's abandoned personal belongings, but only after following very specific rules.
It is not always easy to determine when a tenancy has terminated and the tenant has abandoned his or her personal belongings. Under Oregon law, a tenant's belongings are considered abandoned in one of three ways.
The first way is when the rental agreement ends. This means that the term of the tenancy is over. The tenancy is also over if: the landlord or tenant has given a termination notice; the tenant has surrendered the keys; or the tenant has abandoned the premises and the landlord believes that the tenant has left belongings in the rental unit with no intention of returning.
The second way a tenant's personal belongings are considered abandoned is when the tenant has been gone from the rental unit continuously for at least 7 days after a court has ordered an eviction of the tenant, even though the sheriff's department has not executed the court order or judgment.
The third way in which a tenant's personal belongings are considered abandoned is when a sheriff's department executes a court order of eviction, after which the landlord must take responsibility for storing the belongings. In this case, the landlord does not need to wait for seven days to see if the tenant returns.
Once the tenant's personal belongings are considered abandoned, the landlord has the right and the responsibility to deal with them. Regardless of the way in which the belongings were abandoned, the landlord cannot dispose of them until after meeting several important requirements. The only exception from these requirements is if the landlord and the tenant agree in writing no more than seven days before the tenancy ends, or after the tenancy is over.
If you are a landlord, your first responsibility is to give the tenant a written notice explaining that his or her belongings are considered abandoned and have been safely stored. This notice also must explain that the tenant must contact you within 5 days after personal delivery of the notice or 8 days after mail delivery of the notice, to arrange for removal of the belongings, or else you may sell them or throw them away. (The time period is 45 days for abandoned recreational vehicles, manufactured dwellings and floating homes.) The notice must tell the tenant how to contact you, and that you will make the belongings available for removal by appointment at reasonable times. The notice must also explain that, under certain circumstances, there could be a storage charge the tenant must pay. Finally, if you think the fair market value of the tenant's belongings on Jan. 1, 2012 or later is worth $1000 or less ($500 or less prior to Jan. 1, 2012), or so low that the cost of storage and sale probably exceeds the amount that would be realized from the sale, the notice must say that you will throw or give away any belongings not claimed within the required time period. The value of abandoned recreational vehicles, manufactured dwellings or floating homes must be no more than $8,000 for the landlord to be able to dispose of them without sale. The same kind of notice must go to any lien holder or holder of title on these kinds of property, and to the county tax assessor and tax collector in the county where the abandoned manufactured dwelling or floating home is located.
The landlord must either have the notice personally delivered to the tenant or sent first class mail to the tenant at all three of the following locations: the rental unit, any post office box the landlord knows about, and the most recent forwarding address known to the landlord.
As a landlord, your second responsibility is to store the tenant's abandoned belongings in a safe place until the tenant removes them or the required time period passes. This place could be the rental unit, a commercial storage unit, or your garage. There are a couple of exceptions to this rule: You may immediately dispose of rotting food, and you may allow an animal control agency or humane society to remove abandoned pets or livestock. Special rules also apply to motor vehicles.
If you follow the statutory notice requirements and use reasonable care in storing the tenant's things, you cannot be held responsible to the tenant for any loss resulting from handling or storage. If you fail to follow these requirements, the tenant will have the right to recover any losses, and the tenant will be released from other claims. If you deliberately ignore the notice and storage requirement of the law, you will be liable for twice the tenant's actual damages.
Once the notice has been delivered, the tenant has at least 5 to 8 days, depending on the method of delivery of the notice, in which to contact you to remove the abandoned personal belongings. The tenant may contact you in person, by writing or with a phone call. You then must allow up to 15 more days for the tenant to collect the belongings. The time period is longer (30 days) for abandoned manufactured dwellings, floating homes, and recreational vehicles. You must act in good faith to make the belongings available to the tenant at a reasonable time and place. You may require the tenant to pay removal and storage costs, but not any other charges, before releasing the belongings. However, you may not charge the tenant anything if you had the sheriff execute on an eviction judgment against the tenant.
If the tenant does not claim the belongings or contact you to arrange to collect them, you may sell the belongings at a public or private sale. If the belongings have a fair market value of $1000 or less ($500 or less before Jan. 1, 2012) or cannot be sold for a profit, you can throw or give them away to anyone unrelated to you. Any sale must comply with special rules.
You may keep the reasonable cost of notice, storage and sale, and unpaid rent from the proceeds of the sale. Any balance must be forwarded to the tenant, with an itemized accounting. If the tenant cannot be found, any remaining proceeds go to the county treasurer in the county where the sale occurred. You must not keep the belongings for personal use.
If you fail to notify the tenant of the right to get abandoned belongings or refuse to turn over the tenant's belongings after a proper request, the tenant may file an action to recover the belongings. The court clerk's office has standardized complaint forms for that purpose, as well as answer forms for use by landlords. A tenant must file such a claim within one year of the time the belongings were wrongfully withheld.
There are a number of significant differences in the law described above when the tenant's abandoned personal belongings include a manufactured dwelling, floating home, or recreational vehicle. Because these items are often worth a lot of money, and there may be others with a legal interest involved, you should ask a lawyer for more detailed information.
Legal editor: Mark L. Busch, December 2011