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What Happens When a Tenant Abandons Personal Property?

The Pennsylvania Landlord and Tenant Act ("Act") is over 63 years old. For about 60 of those 63 years, landlords had to guess as to what method they should follow to clear a rental property of a tenant's personal items when a tenant vacated or was evicted from the rental property. In 2012, the Act was amended to allow a landlord to remove a tenant's personal property when either a) there was an executed order or possession, or b) the tenant had vacated the rental property, removed a substantial amount of personal property and provided written notice to the landlord either stating that the tenant had vacated or setting forth the tenant's forwarding address.

However, the 2012 amendments to the Act left open the question of what a landlord should do if the tenant had apparently vacated the rental property, and had left some personal property at the rental premises, but had not provided a forwarding address or written notice of abandonment. In December of 2014, Governor Corbett signed into law additional amendments to the Act. Those new amendments provide more guidelines regarding the circumstances under which a landlord can deem personal property to be "abandoned," what steps the landlord must take in order to dispose of the abandoned personal property, and what penalties the landlord will face if the landlord fails to follow the newly established guidelines and procedures.

Because of the passage of the new amendments to the Act, there are now several specific circumstances listed which enable a landlord to determine whether personal property is "abandoned." When those circumstances are present, the landlord must then provide written notice to the tenant regarding the tenant's right to re-take possession or dispose of the tenant's belongings remaining on the rental premises. The Act sets forth the specific language which must be contained in the notice. (Fortunately for landlords, the Act also provides for the situation in which a tenant has vacated without leaving a forwarding address.) In addition, the Act now provides for a specific amount of time for a tenant to respond to a notice from the landlord, and for the landlord to provide up to 30 days of storage of the personal property. (The tenant is supposed to pay for the storage costs. However, that provision is of little solace to a landlord who knows that the tenant still will benefit from the storage even if the tenant fails to for it.)

If a landlord fails to comply with the amended law, a tenant may be entitled to recover from the landlord not only the costs which the tenant has incurred, but also treble (i.e., triple) damages, and even attorney fees .

An interesting sidelight created by the new amendment is that the new provisions attempt to also protect the personal property of victims of domestic abuse. However, a collateral consequence of those provisions as written is that an abuser who is forced to leave the premises will have his or her personal property protected by the amendments to the Act.

Though landlords may chafe under the restrictive definitions of "abandonment," and the notice and storage protections offered to tenants who have breached, vacated or even "trashed" the rental property, landlords can take some comfort in knowing that there is significantly more clarity as to what they should do, and when they can do it.

Ken Milner

Categories: Residential Leases