Richard Hamilton – Head of Property at Davis Blank Furniss – answers this interesting query.
I am the freehold owner of a building that is used as a workshop. Until recently, the building was occupied by an individual under a tenancy at will. Suddenly, and without warning, the tenant vacated the building but left behind various tools. He did not give any notice to me and has not left any forwarding address.
Rent was paid in cash and I have no official record or other means to trace the tenant. I would like to try and recover the small amount of rent due and I want to get on with reletting the building. What should I do about the tools? They are bulky and I do not want the cost or responsibility of storing them. I would prefer to sell them and keep the money as compensation for the lost rent. Is this allowed?
A tenant is generally obliged to remove his or her belongings at the end of a lease and a lease will often specifically state this. It is also common for a lease to clarify what the landlord can do with any items that may be left in the property. In the absence of express terms in a lease, the belongings remain the tenant's property and the landlord will be an "involuntary bailee". A person may become a bailee by voluntarily and knowingly taking possession of goods belonging to another. A bailee has a wide range of duties, including the duty to take reasonable care of the goods.
It is often costly for the landlord to be left as involuntary bailee especially if the goods are bulky or valuable. Unless you are prepared to store the tools indefinitely, you need to establish that the former tenant has abandoned them, so that you can sell them. Until you have disposed of the tools, you must ensure that they are not damaged or destroyed deliberately or recklessly. You should serve a notice on the tenant to come and collect the goods. The notice should set out where the goods are kept, state when and where the sale will take place, if the goods are to be sold, state any sale and storage costs will be retained from the sale proceeds and also attach a schedule of the goods. The notice should be sent to the former tenant, if its new contact details are known, and, in any event, attached to the premises in a place where it can be seen.
If all reasonable steps have been taken to contact the former tenant and he or she has declined to collect the tools, it is more reasonable to assume the goods have been abandoned and you would then be free to dispose of them.