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What to do when tenants leave things behind

box of unwanted items left behind by a tenant when they moved out

Sometimes when tenants move out, they don’t take everything with them, which puts the landlord in a bit of a tricky situation. It might seem simple to take the items to the tip, or even to sell them. However, even though the possessions have been left behind, they still belong to the tenant, and the landlord needs to be very careful about disposing of the items.

This blog post explains what the law says about dealing with items that tenants leave behind when they move out, and a few practical tips on what to do.

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What the law says about tenants’ possessions left behind

Star Wars script left behind by Harrison Ford in 1974 - photo by Excalibur Auctions
Star Wars script left by Harrison Ford in rented flat in 1976, sold for £8,500 in 2024
Photo: Excalibur Auctions

Harrison Ford rented a flat in Elgin Crescent, London in 1976, when he was filming Star Wars. He left behind a number of items, including the above script, which the landlord sold at auction for £8,500 in February 2024, along with some other memorabilia from the filming of this classic movie.

While we don’t know the ins and outs of whether Harrison Ford consented to this, this was before the important piece of legislation, the Torts (Interference with Goods) Act 1977, came into force in 1981. Under the 1977 Act, the landlord must keep safe any items left behind a tenant for a reasonable period of time and to take reasonable steps to trace the tenant before disposing of them. The Act should be read in conjunction with the tenancy agreement.

Check the tenancy agreement for terms about items left behind

The landlord should check the tenancy agreement to see if there is a clause that sets out the landlord and tenant’s agreement about what should happen with items that are left behind. It’s easier to navigate the Torts (Interference with Goods Act 1977 if there is a record of what the parties consider a reasonable time to store items left behind.

For instance, the NRLA’s standard tenancy agreement contains a detailed clause that complies with the Torts (Interference with Goods) Act 1977, and other clauses that are helpful to landlords. Here is a summary of the sorts of provisions in a tenancy agreement that make life easier for landlords when tenants leave items behind:

  • Statement that the landlord will store items for 14 or 21 days after the end of the tenancy, unless they reasonably appear to be “waste or refuse”, in which case they do not need to be stored.
  • The right for the landlord to remove, store, sell or otherwise dispose of any furniture or items that are not removed at the end of the tenancy, provided that the landlord first uses reasonable steps to contact the tenant, as required by the 1977 Act.
  • The right for the landlord to make reasonable charges for storage, and deduct them from the proceeds of any sale of the items.
  • An express obligation on the tenant to provide a forwarding address when they leave.
  • An express obligation on the tenant to remove all personal belongings, including food, other perishable items and rubbish from the property at the end of the tenancy.

How can landlords protect themselves when tenants leave things behind?

Here is a list of things that landlords can do to protect themselves from claims by tenants about items left behind:

  • Take photos / videos of all the items the tenants have left behind.
  • Make an effort to trace the former tenants, using social media, email, and telephone, and ask them to come and collect the items left behind.
  • Draw up a list of the items and categorise as rubbish, low value items and high value items.
  • Dispose of the items that are clearly rubbish, eg packaging, old house plants, anything broken, and take photos of the disposal.
  • If anything is to be sold, obtain a written quotation for the items, including the costs of sale.
  • Where a house clearance service is needed, and the items are not valuable, make sure you get this in writing, and keep a copy of any invoice.
  • If you can’t get hold of the former tenant informally by text, social media or email, send a formal Section 12 Notice to the last known address of the former tenant that complies with the 1977 Act asking them to collect them within (say) 14 or 21 days from a given address. (Check to see if the tenancy agreement sets out timescales). The notice must contain descriptions of the items, and say that low value items will be disposed of, and anything that is valuable will be sold, if the items are not collected by the date. Add that they will be responsible for costs of storage, disposal and sale.
  • Store all items other than rubbish items safely for the relevant period.
  • If the former tenant says to throw it all away, ask for it in writing or at least record the agreement by email or text, and ask for them to confirm agreement.
  • In case the person is away or has changed their email address, hold onto sentimental items such as photo albums left in a box in a loft.
  • Keep detailed records of everything you do.
  • Remember, the tenant can ask for the proceeds of sale up to six years after you send the notice, so don’t spend the proceeds of any sale!

Guide to sending a Section 12 Notice under Schedule 1

What is a Section 12 Notice?

Unless the items are clearly rubbish (eg broken items, half-used toiletries, packaging), in which case the landlord should dispose of them, Schedule 1 of the 1977 Act requires the landlord to send a Section 12 Notice to the tenant asking them to collect the goods, with a list/description of the items and details of where they are held.

The Section 12 Notice must be delivered in person or sent to the last known address of the tenant. Sometimes tenants set up post redirection when they leave, so if the only address the landlord has is the address of the rental property, the landlord should send it by post.

If the landlord intends to sell items left behind by a former tenant, Schedule 1 of the Torts (Interference with Goods) Act 1977 requires the landlord to send the Section 12 Notice to the former tenant, with a list/description of the items, details of where they are held, and the date after which the goods will be sold. The notice should give the tenant “reasonable opportunity of taking delivery of the goods” before they are sold. The Act states that the Section 12 Notice must be in writing, and sent by post in a registered letter, or by recorded delivery.

Provided that the landlord takes “reasonable steps” to trace the tenant in order to serve the notice, they can sell the goods. The proceeds of sale technically belong to the tenant, but it would be reasonable for the landlord to deduct costs of sale and set off any rent arrears or other damages.

Template Notice under Schedule 1 and Section 12 Torts (Interference with Goods) Act 1977

Here is a template letter which landlords can send under Section 12 of the Torts (Interference with Goods) Act 1977, as required by Schedule 1 (Uncollected Goods) of the 1977 Act.

I’m providing this template letter to be helpful, and am not providing legal advice. By all means take inspiration from the template, but it is important to take your own legal advice as your own situation and the terms of your tenancy agreement may mean this letter is not appropriate for you. More details on my exclusion of liability are in my Terms of Use.

Notice under Section 12 of the Torts (Interference with Goods) Act 1977

Dear [Title][Surname]

Notice under Section 12 Torts (Interference with Goods) Act 1977: Items left at [insert address of property]

Pursuant to Section 12 Torts (Interference with Goods) Act 1977, I am writing to provide you with formal notification that I require you to remove the items listed in the attached schedule by [insert date – should be at least 14 days after the date of the letter]. You left these items behind after you moved out of the above property.

If you do not remove the items by this date, I will either sell the items, or sell them if they are unsaleable. You must reimburse me for any reasonable costs which I incur doing this, and I shall deduct such costs from any proceeds of sale or any tenancy deposit.

The items are stored at [address].

Please contact me [contact details] to arrange for a time for you to collect them, or to confirm that you are happy for me to dispose of them.

Yours sincerely

Practical steps to avoid the problem of tenants leaving items behind

renters have left things in the cellar
During an inspection, remind the tenants they will need to clear the cellar when they leave

Prevention is better than cure with most things, including avoiding the hassle of sorting out things that tenants leave behind after they move out.

  • When a tenant is due to move out, it is a good idea to arrange a visit to inspect the property a few weeks beforehand to point out what they need to do to get back their deposit in full. Take the opportunity to remind them that they must remove everything from the property before they hand over the keys, otherwise you will dispose of it, and charge them for the costs of disposal. Look in the garden, loft and cellar to see if there are any belongings in there. Follow up in writing to remind them that they need to remove everything.
  • If the landlord checks the tenants out themselves, the landlord should see if the property is clear. If not, the landlord can ask the tenant what should happen to any items that are still at the property, and record what is agreed. This can be a quick note, or even a video of the tenant agreeing what should happen to items left behind, like a microwave or a lawnmower.
  • Ask for their contact details and a forwarding address either when you do the pre-checkout inspection, or when you take the keys off the tenants. If you won’t see them in person, send them an email to ask for confirmation of their forwarding address. Not only will this enable you to return the deposit more quickly, but it means it’s easier to contact the tenants if they leave things behind, and forward any post.
  • Check that your tenancy agreement contains useful clauses to help you, like the NRLA assured tenancy agreement that I mention above.
  • Keep an eye on the build up of junk in the cellar and loft during mid-tenancy inspections, and remind them that they will have to clear it all out when they leave.

>> Related Post: 7 tips for a smooth end of tenancy check out

>> Related Post: How to carry out successful mid-tenancy inspections

Final thoughts

Although Harrison Ford’s former landlord was happy to keep (and later sell) some of the things he left behind at the end of filming Star Wars, for most landlords, it’s a hassle having to sort it all out.

Far better to make very clear as part of your checkout procedures that they must take everything with them, and to record any agreement if they are to leave an item behind.

>> Related Post: What deductions can landlords make from tenant’s deposits?

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