The above question is one which we get frequently asked by agents on the PainSmith helpline. It is often the case that tenants will vacate a property and leave their personal possessions behind which can pose a real problem for landlords.
The Torts (Interference with Goods) Act 1977 requires a landlord to take care of the tenant’s possessions and states that they have a duty to ensure that they undertake all reasonable efforts to trace the tenant to return their possessions. It is only when the tenant cannot be traced and a reasonable period of time has lapsed, can the landlord under the Torts (Interference with Goods) Act 1977 sell the possessions. Part II of Schedule 1 states that the tenant should be given at least 3 months notice of the landlord’s intention to sell. However a clause in the tenancy agreement is enough to vary this 3 months to for example, 14 days.
Usually the landlord will hold a forwarding address for the tenant and so will be able to trace the tenant this way however if the tenants whereabouts are unknown then reasonable steps should be taken to trace the tenant including placing an advertisement in the local newspaper and notices on local community boards.
If the landlord manages to trace the tenant the Act goes on to state that a written notice must be served by the landlord on the tenant stating their intention to dispose of the possessions, how to arrange collection and that disposal of the possessions will occur only once the notice has expired. The notice should go on to further state that if the possessions are not collected by the expiry of the notice then the possessions will be sold. If a landlord and tenant are in dispute as to the possessions (such as ownership) then the they cannot be sold until the dispute has been resolved. Where the possessions are sold without confirming who the actual owner of the possessions is, the landlord takes the risk of having the actual owner turning up at his door to make good on this sale without consent, which could mean paying double the actual value of the possessions.
When it comes to selling the possessions the landlord must account for all proceeds of sale, less any reasonable costs (such as storage) and should use the best method of sale which is usually by auction. Any proceeds left over will belong to the tenant up until six years after the sale.
It is often the case that some items that may have been abandoned by a tenant are of little or no value. If this is indeed the case then steps should be taken to determine that the possessions are of little value, for example a letter confirming this by the auctioneer before a landlord or agent on their behalf, disposes of them by any other means.