When tenants move out of a rental apartment or house, the landlord assumes the tenants will take all of their personal belongings. But sometimes the tenants’ belongings remain behind, especially if the tenants were evicted. Several California laws deal with property left by tenants and describe the procedure to follow when returning the property. If the landlords follow the law, they usually can’t be held liable for damage to the tenants’ property.
California Civil Codes
California Civil Codes 1980 to 1991 contain many of the laws regarding the return of personal items left by tenants after they move. Civil Code 1965 provides the penalties if landlords fail to attempt to return tenants’ property. Landlords may be liable for the value of the property, the tenants’ attorney fees and $250. Therefore, landlords must securely store tenants; personal items other than obvious trash.
According to California law, tenants must write the landlord and demand the property left in the rental unit within 18 days of moving out. Within five days of receiving the demand letter, landlords must return the property or send a written statement listing the moving or storage charges. It is legal for landlords to charge a reasonable fee for moving the personal items to a safe storage area and storing the items. The tenant has three days to pay the storage fees and reclaim the property.
If tenants don’t write the landlord and demand return of the property, the property is considered abandoned. Landlords must take an inventory of the abandoned property and determine if the total value of the property is less than or greater than $300. For property worth less than $300, landlords can do whatever they want with the property.
Property Worth More Than $300
When tenants leave property with a value greater than $300, landlords must schedule a public auction to dispose of the property. Advertisements about the auctions go in a local public newspaper. Proceeds from the auction pay the cost of moving and storing the items as well as the cost of the auction. Landlords send the remaining funds to the county where the rental house is located. If landlords have a court judgment against the tenants for past due rent or damage to the rental units, the remaining funds may help pay the bill.
When tenants leave vehicles at the rental house or apartment, California Vehicle Code determines the procedure for disposing of the vehicles. If the tenants leave vehicles parked on the street, landlords call the local police department according to Vehicle Code 22651(k). If the vehicles are non-operable and parked on property owned by the landlord, Vehicle Code 22658(a) applies. The landlord calls the police and arranges to have the vehicle towed within 24 hours. If tenants abandon operable vehicles on property owned by the landlord, Vehicle Codes 22523 (b) and 22669 apply. Usually the police arrange for the vehicle to be towed.
- The California Landlord’s Law Book: Rights and Responsibilities: David Brown, Ralph Warner and Janet Portman
- California Civil Code Section 1980-1991
- California Civil Code Section 1965
- California Department of Consumer Affairs: Options for a Landlord – When a Tenant’s Personal Property Has Been Left in the Rental Unit: Legal Guide LT-5
Kim Dieter has taught agriscience classes, developed curriculum and participated in the school accreditation process at the secondary and community college levels since 1980. She holds a Master of Science degree from the University of California, Davis, in animal science.