A common problem faced by landlords is when a tenant leaves fixtures, fittings and possessions behind at the end of a lease. But what exactly can a landlord do with these items in these circumstances?
The first question is to consider an exact definition for 'tenant property'. This usually depends on whether the items in question are fixed to the premises and, as such, have become landlord fixtures. Items such as cabling, stock and furniture are generally easily removable and therefore considered to be tenant property.
The vast majority of leases require tenants to remove their property at the end of the term. Failure to do so could mean a claim for breach of lease but this is unlikely to be a cost-effective remedy or, indeed, the main issue on the landlord's mind – which will be to have the premises vacant and ready for re-letting.
The clearest position will be where the lease sets out what the landlord can do with any property left at the premises at the end of the term. In the absence of any express terms in the lease, however, items left will remain the tenant’s and the landlord will find themselves in the position of an involuntary bailee with numerous duties – most notable of which is taking reasonable steps to allow the tenant to recover its property.
How long must I keep the property?
Unless the landlord is willing to store the items indefinitely, the landlord will need to demonstrate that the goods have been abandoned before the property can be disposed of.
In order to establish abandonment, the landlord should serve a written notice on the tenant setting out details of where the property can be found. If no new address for the tenant is known, the notice should be clearly and visibly displayed at the premises where the property was left.
If no response is received and it is reasonable to assume that the property has been abandoned, the landlord can then sell the property (or otherwise dispose of, if reasonable) and must retain any sale proceeds for a reasonable period of time. This will depend on the sum of money in question and all other circumstances of the case.
The Court of Appeal has recently considered these principles, albeit in different circumstances, in the case of Da Rocha-Afodu v Mortgage Express Ltd  EWCA Civ 454. Here, the claimant had been in mortgage arrears to the defendant lender. After obtaining a warrant for execution, a notice of eviction was served which warned the claimants to arrange to leave with all their belongings within a specified period. When the claimants later went to collect their belongings after the specified period had elapsed, they found that the defendant’s sub-contractors had removed and destroyed all remaining property. The Court of Appeal dismissed the claimant's argument that it was entitled to damages for conversion agreeing that the defendant had successfully discharged its duty to the claimant.
What is ‘reasonable’ will depend upon the facts in each case but landlords must take care to ensure that they allow the tenant reasonable opportunity to recover property before disposing of it.