It can be very difficult to know what to do if a tenant appears to have abandoned a property. You will need to balance your rights to protect your investment against the tenant's rights to occupation of the property and their property rights.
A tenant who has an existing fixed term tenancy agreement has a right to occupy the property for the duration of that agreement. If you let the property to someone else or interfere with the tenant's belongings you could be found guilty of a crime. Work closely with the Environmental Health Department of your local council if you suspect your property has abandoned. Notify the council of your concerns and ask for their advice. This could protect you against an allegation of illegal eviction if your tenant has not, in fact, abadoned the property.
Establishing that a property has been abandoned
You need to be absolutely certain that a property has been abandoned before you can enter it. If you suspect that the tenant has left the property, do the following:
- visit the property to see if anyone is living there
- have a look through the windows or letterbox to see if it looks as though the property is vacant or there is a build up of post
- check if the tenant has returned the property keys to any agent acting on your behalf
- ask the neighbours if they have noticed anyone coming or going
- check with the Housing Executive if your tenant receives Housing Benefit to see if the claim has been stopped.
If, after carrying out investigations, you are satisfied that the property has been abandoned you should write to the tenant, enclosing a written Notice to Quit and asking the tenant to contact you as quickly as possible if they wish to remain in the property.
Until you have obtained a court order for possession, the property remains the legal home of the tenant. Get advice if you think a tenant has abandoned your property.
Your rights of entry
Until you get an order for possession of the property it is still regarded as the tenant's home. Your right to enter the property depends on the information contained in your tenancy agreement.
If you intend to enter a property which you suspect has been abandoned you should send a letter to the property, informing the occupants of your intention to enter to carry out an inspection. Once you are satisfied that a property has been abandoned, you should contact the environmental health office at your local council. Tell the council that you think your property has been abandoned and that you wish to secure it. Ask if a council officer will accompany you to the property to do this.
You should not change the locks without having an independent witness present who can vouch for you at a later date. Until you have obtained a court order for possession or a clear indication from the tenant that they no longer intend to live in the property the tenant is entitled to return.
If you change the locks, you should place an abandonment notice on the property informing the tenant of the action you have taken. Include contact details so the tenant can get in touch if he or she does return.
You cannot dispose of any property belonging to the tenant.
It is advisable to work closely with your local council if you suspect your property has been abandoned. You may need to get a possession order before letting the property to anyone else. To get a possession order, you must first serve a Notice to Quit on the tenant. Once the notice has expired you can apply to the courts for a possession order. You must attend court to present your case to the judge. Make sure you provide records of all the investigations you have carried out and any evidence you have to show that the tenant no longer intends to remain in the property.
If the tenant has left personal items in the property, the court may interpret this as an intention to return so you should make sure that you have evidence to show otherwise.
If the court is satisfied that the property has been abandoned it will usually grant a possession order. Once you have this order you can let the property to a new tenant.
Dealing with abandoned belongings
It can be a real headache for landlords if a tenant has left personal belongings in the property. Disposing of these can be seen as criminal damage so you must be very careful.
Make an inventory of all the items left by the tenant, including their condition. If possible, have an independent witness verify this inventory.
Check if you have an alternative address for the tenant or for a guarantor. Write to this address detailing the items that remain in the property and informing the tenant how these can be claimed. You must give the tenant at least 21 days to respond to your letter or collect the items.
It may not seem fair, but you are required to look after your tenant's belongings. You may have to put the belongings in storage for a period of time if you want to let the property to someone else. You cannot sell the tenant's items to compensate yourself for any outstanding rent, but you can use the proceeds from the sale of goods to pay for the storage charges you incurred.
If you find yourself in this situation, you should seek legal advice before disposing of any items belonging to a former tenant.