Can you dispose of equipment left behind by an outgoing tenant?

An outgoing tenant left equipment behind – can I sell it? The lease will generally oblige the tenant to remove their goods and belongings at the end of the tenancy and ideally set out what the landlord can do with any items and belongings that may be left at the property at the end of the term or if the tenant simply decides to vacate.

What are the landlord obligations?

If the lease does not deal with this the goods or ‘chattels’ remain the former tenant’s property and the landlord will be an ‘involuntary bailee’ and owe certain obligations to the former tenant, ‘the bailor’. For example the landlord must not deliberately or recklessly damage or destroy the items and if trying to return the items to the owner through a third party, to confirm that the third party has the necessary authority on behalf of the former tenant to receive them.

On the other hand, where the former tenant vacates the property and simply abandons its belongings, the landlord or person who finds or takes possession of the items may become the new owner and so free to deal with the items as they see fit including selling the items or disposing of them as rubbish.

What actions must an involuntary bailee perform?

It can be potentially expensive for a landlord to be left as involuntary bailee of a former tenant’s goods, especially if they are perishable, bulky or valuable or if the landlord has a new tenant lined up to move into the property.

The difficulty comes in establishing whether the former tenant has abandoned the goods; until which time the landlord should make sure they are not damaged or destroyed.

The correct action is to serve a notice in accordance with Schedule 1 of the Torts (Interference with Goods) Act 1977, requiring the former tenant to come and collect the goods. 

What should the notice include?

If you find that you have become an involuntary bailee then in order to deal with the bailor’s goods it is necessary for you to serve the bailor with a notice. 

The notice should as a minimum provide a schedule of the items that remain at the property and set out where the items are kept, state what you intend to do with the bailor’s goods should they fail to collect them within the period provided and when and where any proposed sale will take place. You should also explain that any sale and storage costs will be retained from the sale proceeds and include your contact details so that the necessary arrangements can be made.

The notice should be sent to the former tenant, if their new contact details are known and should also be attached to the property in a place where it can be seen such as the front door.

In order to serve the notice you must take reasonable steps to locate the former tenant. What would be deemed as reasonable will depend upon whether you intend upon disposing of or selling the goods and equipment.

 If steps have been taken to contact the former tenant but they have not got in touch, it is more reasonable to assume the items have been abandoned and the landlord then free to dispose of them after a reasonable waiting period. If the goods are reclaimed, it is advisable to get written confirmation from the person collecting them that they are or have authority to do so from the true owner.

Other practical advice

It would also be sensible to document all action taken in case evidence is required to defend a claim by the former tenant or true owner for damages or conversion. 

With that in mind, a landlord should be alert that some items may not belong to the former tenant but instead may belong to a third party; for example they might be held in trust or under a hire purchase agreement. Where such items show that they might be owned by a third party the landlord should make contact with the third party to arrange for collection of the goods. 

Although there is no hard and fast rule, if the landlord decides to sell the items the sale should be for a proper price and the proceeds of sale kept for a short while depending on the nature of the items and the sums involved in case the former tenant should come back on to the scene. 

How Moore Barlow can help

The Property disputes team have experience of dealing assisting both commercial and residential landlords when tenants have vacated premises leaving behind goods and equipment. 

We work closely with you and where necessary your commercial agents to properly establish at an early stage whether the former tenant has abandoned its equipment and we take steps to liaise with any third party. Our aim is to assist our landlord clients in coming to an early decision when removing items and equipment left behind by a former tenant so as to reduce any delay in our clients being able to remarket the premises and return to their business.

We would be happy to advise you based on your own set of circumstances, so if you would like to discuss further do not hesitate to get in touch.