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How can I find out if my tenants have left or not?

top floor flatHere is a question for the blog clinic from Carrie who is a landlord

I am a landlady and I suspect that my tenants have absconded, I have stopped receiving rent and they cannot be contacted. I understand that in these circumstances it is common practice to put up and abandonment notice and if there is no response change the locks.

My property is a top floor flat and there is no way to see inside to look for the obvious signs of abandonment. I wrote to the tenants stating my intention to visit the property on a specific date and time. When I arrived, I discovered that the locks had already been changed.

There is no way to conclusively prove that the flat is empty without gaining access.
My question is: is there a way I can gain access to my flat without having to go down the protracted court possession route?

I hope you can reveal something which allows me to act within the law.

This is a difficult problem and there is no easy answer.  The ONLY safe way to go in and change the locks is with the court bailiffs after an order for possession has been obtained.  But I agree it is a long process and not an attractive option.

I would suggest that in any event you serve a section 21 notice and a section 8 notice now, so at least if you do have to issue proceedings you won’t waste any more time.

Personally in this situation I think abandonment notices are a waste of time (and dangerous as they are an invitation to squatters).  I wrote about this >> here.

Implied surrender

Landlords are entitled to change the locks and take back the property if the conduct of the tenant is incompatible with an intention to continue with the property.  Legally this can be taken to be an ‘implied offer to surrender’ which you can ‘accept’ by going in and changing the locks.

However you need to be very careful about this, as if the tenant is on holiday, in hospital or in prison, these are NOT circumstances where an offer to surrender will be implied.  So if you do go in and change the locks in these situations, you can be sued for compensation for unlawful eviction.

Things for landlords to consider

As the tenants remedy for unlawful eviction is a claim for damages, if there are rent arrears these would be offset against any award they might get, so with a tenant in serious arrears of rent it may be worth going along with a locksmith to see what you can find.

If the tenant has moved out taking all his belongings and has left the keys behind you are safe to repossess.  Unfortunately for someone in your position you have to change the locks before you can find this out.

It might also be an idea for you to do bit of investigation.  If you are able to prove that the tenants are living elsewhere then you will be in a much stronger position.  A tracing agent may be able to help you here.

Weighing up the risk

If you speak to a solicitor the answer you will always get is that you need to get an order for possession in this situation.  This is the only safe course of action.

However there are times when it is worth taking a risk.  It is up to the landlord to weigh up the options and decide whether it is a risk worth taking.

About the author

Tessa Shepperson Tessa is a lawyer specialising in residential landlord and tenant law. She runs the Landlord Law website (now in its 12th year) and is also a director of Easy Law Training Ltd and Your Law Store. When not working she enjoys reading, cooking and messing around on the computer. You can also find her on Google

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9 Responses to How can I find out if my tenants have left or not?

  1. Ben Reeve Lewis says:

    I had one of these just yesterday and not for the first time either. As Tessa says it can be a tickly process.

    I would suggest contacting the officer in the council who receives complaints of illegal eviction and tell them that you seriously believe the property has been abandoned and ask them to record that you plan to re-enter but if the property is clearly still occupied you will back off.

    I wrote a letter for my landlord recording the conversation we had about it so if any complaints are made we can at least resolve with a modicum of common sense.

  2. Col says:

    As a former TRO I concur that this is a common problem. However landlords often wanted “permission” to re-enter and take possession; and regretably another Council dept had opted for the “abandonment notice” route which gave rose to problems. A TRO should not hamper their own position and ability to investigate an alleged offence if a later complaint is made by a tenant.
    As an example of caution, I was once invited to attend a property by a landlord who had entered and having done so I commented that the state of the place with clothes all around the floor; half empty takeaways etc. looked as if it may have been abandoned; the landlord commented “no it is always like this”!

  3. Ben Reeve Lewis says:

    Haha Sounds like that advert where the girl enters the bloke’s flat and thinks he’s been turned over and he has to play along so she doesnt think he’s a slob.

    Yes landlords do sometimes try and get my buy-in so they can evict without bothering with court but you have to temper it with common sense.

    In my case yesterday the landlord is one of our pool who work regularly with us and takes tenants we refer on, so we have an ongoing relationship. I think we should be working with them as best we can and I have seen many cases where tenants will play the ‘I’ve been illegally evicted’ card deliberately in such circumstances. I am mindful and wary of being used by tenants in this way too.

    I am more than happy to go to a property to see if there is evidence of an intention to return or abandonment

  4. Miles Turner says:

    Couple of all tricks picked up over the years – if the flat has external utility meters, take readings – no consumption would help support you your contention that the flat has abandons (if you are later challenged). Speak to the neighbours – has the tenant been seen.
    Ask the bin men, have the bins been used (less conclusive in a block of flats). Ask the Council Tax department, if the tenant has left and let them know, they will tell you as you as the landlord will be responsible to empty rates.
    Record all and any of the above to use as proof of your reasonable steps to establish abandonment. BUT I agree with Tessa – you need to be careful to avoid being sued for illegal eviction!!

  5. Those are all really good points Miles, thanks for that. I will remember them!

  6. Industry Observer says:

    As a starting point here may I just comment that the tenant has breached the agreement here as they have changed locks without consent and not given the Landlord a set.
    Landlords very rarely, very rarely indeed, end up in Court in genuine situations where they have acted responsibly, done everything they can as advised here to establish abandonment or not, and then gone in. I have never in 20+ years known a GENUINE case where the Landlord even ended up in Court. Threatened yes, usually by a desperate or conniving tenant, but if I has £20 for every time I have heard the threat muttered I’d be wealthy.
    Abandonment notices count for absolutely zilch. But if you do use one never make it visible from outside and always allow 14 days before changing locks.
    Ben hi nice to see you posting again, I appreciate the sentiment but again in my experience the Council will not help and if they do it will be to tell the tenant to sit tight. Telling the Council you are about to break the Law is like telling a police car driver you are about to do 80mph down the motorway – doesn’t excuse the act!!
    Practical tips? If there is gas at the flat go with someone, say to each other you can smell gas and go in.
    I once found a borrower dead in a property, so again how do you know the tenant isn’t dead in there? So you are acting compassionately as there is of course no reason for the tenant not to contact you – or is there?
    If you change the locks and they are changed back again then you know the tenant is still around. If you change locks and the tenant asks you for a key and you give them one you have not illegally excluded them from the property anyway.
    Yes there are legalities, yes there are risks but life has to go on. If it is a genuine situation and you proceed one step at a time you should have little to fear. What you really need to ask is why have the locks been changed – tenant got something to hide behind that front door? Only way to tell is to go in and find out.

  7. I agree with you I/S landlords advancing cautiously and reasonably are unlikely to end up in court. The Protection from Eviction Act itself offers a possible get out:-
    “shall be guilty of an offence unless he proves that he believed, and had reasonable cause to believe, that the residential occupier had ceased to reside in the premises.”

    I wish I could take issue with you over your reserved cynicism about council support but I fear you are right in most cases. All I can say for my part is I try wherever possible to provide support and advice to tenants, landlords and agents. There are other people in councils who hold a similar view and its a always worth a call. You might on the other hand just get “Computer says no”

  8. Industry Observer says:

    Hi Ben

    My comment is based on the grimaces and guffaws from private landlords at every training course I do!!

    Most Councils are too busy to deal with actual situations, not possibilities

    My wife works for a City Council so another reason gfor reality and not cynicism in my comments!!

  9. Yeah I’m a passionate believer that councils really have to change and get with the programme in terms of how they deal with the PRS community.

    They are increasingly becoming dinosaurs in that respect and the more they become irrelevant the more at risk they are of being cut further and sold off in parts. Witness the sterling work being done by the Cabinet Office’s Mutuals taskforce. The writing is definately on the wall for council services. The only sane option being to take over the running of your team or department as a provate concern, the alternative being sit around and wait for the axe to fall




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Tessa is an English lawyer specialising in residential landlord and tenant law.


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