When rent goes unpaid and the landlord is unable to contact the tenant, it may appear that the tenant has abandoned the property without notice. If the landlord suspects that a tenant has abandoned the rental lease, the landlord can take certain steps to reclaim the property and collect damages for any unpaid rent.
Many lease agreements also contain provisions stating that if rent is overdue for a certain period of time, or if the tenant leaves the premises without telling the landlord for a specified period of time, the lease has been abandoned.
Once a landlord suspects that the lease has been abandoned and the rental premises is also empty for a period of time without notice, the landlord can take the following steps:
- Enter and Investigate: The landlord may enter the unit to do a brief check to see if the tenant has actually abandoned. The landlord can use keys after several unsuccessful attempts to contact and call out the tenant.
- Proper Notice: Landlord may try to give a notice of abandonment to the tenant’s known address and also post a notice on property
- Securing property: Once the deadline has passed and the landlord is sure the unit is abandoned, the landlord may change locks and re-rent as soon as reasonably possible. The landlord has the duty to minimize their financial losses by re-renting the unit as soon as possible. The former tenant is liable for the rent owed up until the day the new tenant moves in.
- Collect Owed Rent: the landlord can use the former tenant’s security deposit to compensate the unpaid rent and to repair any damages. If the amount owed exceeds the security deposit, the landlord can file a claim in small claims court to recover. However, the landlord can only collect any unpaid rent up to the date a new tenant moved in the former tenant’s unit.
- No-Self Help: If the landlord suspects that the tenant has not abandoned the property, but the tenant is not paying any rent, the landlord may not use self-help measures to physically exclude the tenant out of the unit. This means the landlord cannot force the tenant out physically or change the locks. The landlord must only evict using court procedures.
If a tenant leaves a rental unit prior to the lease’s expiration, all of the following may occur:
- Your landlord can terminate your lease and re-rent the property to someone else
- Your landlord can allow police or other authorities to search the property without violating any of your Constitutional rights
- In some jurisdictions, after a specified time period, your landlord can dispose of any personal property you left behind
- Your landlord can take you to court to recover unpaid rent for the time period that the premises were vacant
If a tenant abandons a leased premises, the landlord may terminate the lease and sue the tenant for any unpaid rent. The landlord may keep the security deposit to pay for any unpaid rent and pay for any repairs required caused by tenant. If the amount that is owed by the tenant exceeds the security deposit the landlord may sue the tenant in small claims court to collect the amount owed.
The landlord has a duty to mitigate his losses by re-renting the premises to a new tenant. The landlord must take reasonable and timely steps to re-rent the premises and can only recover any unpaid rent until the date the new tenant moves in. If the landlord fails to take reasonable steps to re-rent the premises, the landlord cannot collect any damages he could have avoided.
Whether you are a landlord who is dealing with a tenant who has abandoned a lease, or a tenant who is being sued by your landlord for rent owed, you should speak to a real estate lawyer familiar with landlord-tenant issues. A lawyer can help you to minimize your losses, and advise you on how to handle the situation. Laws on this issue can be complicated and vary from state to state.