Recovering possession – what if a tenant leaves their goods or belongings at the premises?

The problem

A lease may be forfeited and the landlord owed rent however under UK landlord and tenant law the landlord still has to proceed with care to avoid a claim.   The typical situation is that a lease is forfeited or a tenant abandons premises or goes into liquidation and goods and belongings may be left at the premises.  Where there are rent arrears or other sums owing the landlord will want to sell these items but to avoid disputes and claims it is important that the landlord serves proper notice on the former tenant  and keeps proper records of the sale to avoid the tenant bringing a action for conversion (a civil action for damages for selling or use of another’s goods).

In the absence of express terms in a lease, goods left in the premises once the lease has come to an end remain the former tenant’s property and the landlord will be what is termed an involuntary bailee.  i.e.  a person who has, without their consent, found themselves in possession of the goods belonging to another.

The solution

Unless the landlord is prepared to store the belongings indefinitely, they will need to establish that the tenant has abandoned them.  Whilst doing so, they must ensure that the goods are not damaged or destroyed deliberately or recklessly.

To establish abandonment of the goods, the landlord should serve a notice in accordance with Schedule 1 of the Torts (Interference with Goods) Act 1977, requiring the tenant (or the “true owner of the goods”) to come and collect them.

There is no prescribed form for the notice but it should give the former tenant reasonable time to collect the goods, usually 14 days is considered sufficient.  The landlord should also provide reasonable access to allow the tenant to collect their goods and belongings.

The Notice should also include a brief schedule detailing the goods which have been left at the property.   On reclaiming the goods the landlord is entitled to and should require confirmation from the person or company collecting them that they are the true owner of the goods.

What if the goods are not claimed?

If all reasonable steps have been taken to contact the former tenant then it is more reasonable to assume the goods have been abandoned the landlord will be free to dispose of them.   If the goods or belongings are sold it should be for a proper price and it usually best to contact a bailiff or property clearance specialist who will arrange for them to be sold at auction.   The proceeds of sale should be forward to the tenant less the cost of sale and any sums that may be outstanding under the lease.

It may be that the good or belongings are worthless or at least not worth the cost of sending to auction.   In this case the best course of action is to take a photographic inventory of the items before disposing of them and keep a record of the costs involved.

Jonathan Cass is a partner in the dispute resolution team and regularly advises both landlords who are resident in the UK and abroad and tenants on the complicated rules relating rent arrears and recovery of assets.   If you have any queries please do contact Jonathan.