Navigating Property Abandonment: A Guide for Landlords
As a landlord, you might face several issues, and one could be dealing with a property that appears to be abandoned by the tenant. This situation can be pretty complex. Hence we're taking you through a step-by-step guide on manoeuvre such a situation legally.
When a tenant seems to have left the property without notice, landlords face a predicament. Before assuming the property is abandoned, landlords must take specific steps to avoid potential legal issues.
Understanding Unlawful Eviction Risk
As per section 2 of the Protection from Eviction Act 1977, landlords must obtain a court order for possession of the property. Taking possession without a court order despite it seeming evident that the tenant has abandoned the property can lead to prosecution and a potential civil damages claim from the tenant. This could be construed as unlawful eviction - a criminal offence with few exceptions.
Proving the Property is Abandoned
It's challenging to prove the belief and reasonable cause that a tenant has abandoned the property. Despite rent non-payment, landlords may need to provide additional evidence to demonstrate that the tenant's actions are inconsistent with the tenancy continuing. This could include the tenant notifying the local authority of their departure, providing closing meter readings to utility providers, or witness statements from neighbours.
People often mention "abandonment notices," which are notices placed on a property indicating the assumption that the property has been left behind and the landlord's plan to reclaim it if the tenant does not reach out. Yet, the tenant might not be aware of the notice and may not be able to communicate with the landlord (for example, they may be in the hospital). While an abandonment notice can be part of the evidence supporting a "reasonable" assumption of property abandonment by the tenant, it alone is insufficient.
Role of Local Authority
Engagement with the local authority is an option, as they often initiate prosecutions for unlawful eviction. If they are satisfied with the landlord's actions and evidence of abandonment, it's unlikely the landlord will face prosecution.
Tenant's Intent to Return
When considering possession without a court order, the crucial question is not whether someone is living at the property but whether the tenant intends to return within a reasonable period.
Housing & Planning Act 2016
The Housing and Planning Act 2016 specifies an abandonment protocol, although this part of the legislation still needs to be enacted.
Always Seek a Court Order
To avoid the risk of unlawful eviction, it's advisable always to seek a court order if in doubt of the tenant's abandonment.
Management of Goods Left at Property
If the tenant has left belongings at the property, the landlord enters a legal relationship called 'bailment.'
Responsibilities of the Landlord (Bailee)
Under the Torts (Interference with Goods) Act 1977, the landlord must return these goods and can be held liable for any loss or damage that occurs to the goods whilst in their care.
Can Goods Be Removed?
As per the case Jones v Gospel , moving out the goods whilst taking reasonable care not to cause damage is permissible.
Tenant's Possessions Care
Landlords must act reasonably regarding the goods and take all reasonable steps to reunite them with the tenant to avoid liability.
Tenancy Agreement Provisions
The tenancy agreement should contain a clause about dealing with goods left at the premises. This clause should be fair and comply with the Consumer Rights Act 2015.
Torts (Interference with Goods) Act 1977
This Act provides the regulations concerning the landlord's power to impose an obligation on the tenant to take delivery of the goods, primarily when the tenant cannot be traced or communicated with.
Steps to Take If Tenant Cannot Be Traced
If the tenant cannot be traced, the landlord must take reasonable steps to do so, such as looking back on the original application for accommodation for details of a next of kin and current and previous employers and then contacting these people.
How Long Should Goods Be Held?
Depending on the value of the goods and the provision within the tenancy agreement, the length of time to hold onto goods before sale can differ. However, the tenant must be in "breach of the bailment agreement" as per the tenancy agreement before a sale can occur.
In Wales, legislation governs safeguarding items left behind after abandonment, and the minimum period to hold on to goods is eight weeks (a four-week warning period plus four weeks after the occupation contract has ended). Although not authoritative for England, it acts as a helpful guide.
If you trace the tenant, two notices should be served simultaneously - the 'power to impose an obligation to collect goods' notice and the 'notice of intention to sell goods' notice.
The position for vehicles is similar to other belongings. However, as cars can have significant value, some care must be taken to trace the owner. The DVLA can often help to trace the vehicle owner.
While dealing with abandoned property and leftover possessions can be complicated, following the proper legal procedures can help landlords avoid potential issues. Always seek legal advice if you need help with the steps to take.
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If a landlord takes possession when it seems evident that the tenant has abandoned the property, there is a risk that the tenant may then claim unlawful eviction. The landlord could be prosecuted and face a civil damages claim from the tenant. Therefore, the safe option is to obtain an order from the court giving the landlord possession. As detailed earlier, evicting a tenant without a court order is a criminal offence (with very few exceptions).