It is agreed amongst all housing providers that an abandoned property is simply a waste of housing stock. The Torts (Interference with Goods) Act 1977 sets out how to avoid repercussions so that the property can be re let as soon as possible.
Any goods left behind by a tenant still belong to that tenant, whether a possession order is obtained by the landlord or the tenant surrenders the tenancy. This is a recurring dilemma for landlords, who are conscious that the removal of belongings left by a tenant is unlawful.
Specific to social landlords, if goods are left in the property a full inventory should be taken by at least two members of staff. If possible, photographs of the property and its contents should be taken and an estimate of the value of the goods left behind should also be recorded by staff or an independent contractor.
A commercial decision should be taken based on what is left behind. If the goods are disposed of by the landlord and subsequently turn out to be of value, the landlord may be subject to a claim for damages.
Torts (Interference with Goods) Act 1977
The landlord becomes an 'involuntary bailee', having acquired goods left at the property which belong to another. The Act permits landlords to dispose of goods left behind as long as the correct procedures are followed. Social landlords must ensure that the procedure is also in line with internal policy and procedure.
The Act also requires landlords to take care of the tenant's goods and make reasonable arrangements to trace the tenant so that their goods can be returned to them. Notice should be served in accordance with Schedule 1 of the Act, requiring the tenant (or the true owner of the goods) to come and collect them. The notice should be sent to the tenant if the address is known, and in any event attached to the property so that it can be clearly seen.
The notice will need to state the following:
- where the goods are being kept
- where sale of the items will take place
- if items are sold, sale and storage costs will be deducted from the proceeds of sale
- list the goods that remain
Reasonable time to collect the goods is dependant on the landlord, however 14 days or more is sufficient. As most social landlords cannot afford to store the goods indefinitely, notice should be served as soon as possible but not contrary to any internal policy guidelines.
If all reasonable steps have been taken to contact the former tenant and the notice has expired, landlords can dispose of the goods. If the goods are sold, any proceeds of sale that remain - after deducting storage costs and debt owed to the landlord - must be returned to the former tenant.
If the steps outlined above are not taken, landlords may find themselves open to the former tenant bringing an action for conversion (a civil action for damages for selling or using another person's property). This can be very costly and time consuming so it is important to ensure that the steps above are taken and evidence of doing so is carefully recorded.