Our regular guest blogger Ben Reeve-Lewis talks us through this important and little understood topic.
Tenants property – landlords rights
One of the most common complaints that comes up when doing Tenancy Relations work and housing advice in relation to tenants belongings is;
- The tenant complaining that the landlord has seized their belongings and refuses to give them back until they pay monies that are owed and
- Landlords asking what to do with a person’s personal belongings when they have left the property.
Having been asked for the umpteenth time about these issues in the past few months I felt compelled to set the record straight.
Interestingly the same law covers both situations. And it is the….. Torts (Interference with Goods) Act 1977.
Let’s deal with the seizure of tenant’s goods first
A landlord cannot by law withhold another’s personal belongings in lieu of any monies owed. A ‘Tort’ is a civil wrong rather than a Criminal one and the way is clear in the event of a breach for a tenant to take action, including claims for substantial damages against the offender.
Many people, when taking advice from ‘Dave down the pub’ think that there is a law that allows them to hold belongings when a tenant owes them rent. There used to be, it was called ‘Detinue’ but this was abolished by the 1977 Act mentioned above.
Similarly it is common for landlords to think in terms of an eye for an eye, or natural justice but this can prove an expensive mistake. In the recent case of Cashmere v. Walsh, Downing and Veale the tenant, amongst other damages, was awarded £6,515 for the landlord failing to return the goods in question.
The Torts (Interference with Goods) Act 1977 itself describes the offence in these words:-
1 Definition of “wrongful interference with goods”
In this Act “ wrongful interference” , or “ wrongful interference with goods” , means—
(a) conversion of goods (also called trover),
(b) trespass to goods,
(c) negligence so far at it results in damage to goods or to an interest in goods.
(d) subject to section 2, any other tort so far as it results in damage to goods or to an interest in goods.
If a tenant owes rent to the landlord, then the correct way to recover the sum is through the county court in possession proceedings or as a separate action for a money judgment
Now lets look at what a landlord can do if a tenant leaves their belongings in the premises.
As harsh as this may seem a landlord is under a legal obligation to take care of tenant’s possessions. Protecting, removal and storage of uncollected goods can result in extra costs that the landlord doesn’t want but the Torts (Interference with Goods) Act 1977 does provide some guidance.
Be advised that if a tenant appears to have abandoned their belongings it could be argued that the goods may be evidence of an intention to return and therefore the property has not in point of fact been officially abandoned.
This can be a real headache for landlords, especially when their tenant leads what we in the housing advice world term ‘Chaotic lifestyles’. If you change the locks on the assumption that the property has been abandoned and the tenant subsequently turns up, the landlord could be considered to have illegally evicted the tenant. So watch that one.
It is good practice, when signing up a new tenant, to collect in writing alternative contact details of relatives or friends who in the event of having goods left in the premises a landlord can contact.
In theory it is possible to insert a suitable clause into a tenancy agreement to set out contractual obligations regarding this, but it is advisable to use a formal notice of collection of goods as well to avoid any possible come backs.
As in all landlord and tenant issues ‘Belt and Braces’ is recommended if you want to avoid the possibility of costly delays.
In the event that there is a dispute about who owns the goods that are left a landlord cannot dispose of the goods until this matter is settled.
If you intend to dispose of the goods then you are obliged by law to give a reasonable period of notice before selling them, commonly 21 days. If the tenant owes money to the landlord BEFORE service of the notification then the landlord is obliged under the law to keep the property for at least 3 months before selling them.
The landlord is entitled to sell the goods and keep any reasonable costs that were incurred through storage, removal and sale. The law expects the landlord to obtain the best price they can and then return the amount beyond the landlords costs to the tenant.
It is unlikely that a tenant abandoning a property would leave expensive home entertainment equipment, usually it is old clothes and bags so the likelihood of recouping funds owed through sale is a small one in most cases.
The requirements on a landlord in this area may seem particularly onerous but this is simply one of the frustrations that make up the lot of the private landlord, it simply goes with the territory I’m afraid.
I always tell people that you can make good money as a landlord but it is not necessarily easy money. Protection of tenant’s goods is just one of those areas.