Lucy Regan, London Representative for the NLA advises landlords on the issue of tenant abandonment.
Abandonment isn’t something that happens often in the private rented sector but when it does it can be distressing and confusing. But how do you know if your property has been abandoned and what are the steps you need to take?
Things you need to consider
Has the property been abandoned?
First of all a landlord must decide if the property has been abandoned. If a tenant has given notice or handed back the keys this is then termed ‘surrender of tenancy’. Secondly a landlord must establish the reason: there may be a valid reason as to why a property is left unattended, for instance a hospital stay, an extended holiday or the tenant has gone to prison.
Your insurance may not be valid if the property has been left unattended for more that the stipulated period. This could prove costly as empty properties are susceptible to squatters and vandals.
How to check that property has been abandoned
- Contact – A landlord should first attempt to contact the tenant. If they do not respond to calls, voicemails, text messages or emails, it could be the first bit of evidence that the property has been abandoned?
- Is the tenant still making rent payments? – When did they stop? Is that normal or have they been late with payments before?
- Are the tenant’s possessions still at the property? If they have been removed, it could be another tick in the box of abandonment. Checking for possessions can be difficult. In some cases a landlord may be able to see through a window, but if this is not possible, they must then seek permission from the tenant to access the property. But with the suspicion of abandonment this may not be possible. However if a landlord thinks the property is in an unsafe state they may enter, but they must be cautious and make sure there is a clear reason for entering. It would also be a good idea to have a witness come along.
- Is the tenant claiming housing benefits? If so, then a landlord can contact the Housing Department. They may even be in contact with the tenant and could shed some light on the situation.
Where do you stand legally?
A landlord needs to be aware that the tenant is legally entitled to return and take up residence again, and that the landlord is responsible for the tenant’s possessions.
If a landlord takes over the property and re-lets it, there could be serious trouble as it is a civil offence relating to the breach of the existing tenancy contract. It is also a criminal offence to prevent the continuation of the tenancy.
There have been cases where landlords have been fined up to £20,000 for re-letting their properties when then tenant is clearly not coming back.
The safest way to deal with abandonment is to get a court possession order before taking over the property.
What to do next
If a landlord has established significant evidence that the property has potentially been abandoned they should follow these steps:
- Remember to ensure that all communications and actions are documented.
- Make sure that there is a witness available and willing to give a statement at any time when at or dealing with the property and tenant. A local authority’s Tenant Relations Officer can help with this.
- Serve an Abandonment Notice. This note must be placed on the tenant’s door. However, be aware that this may attract squatters, so do it as discreetly as possible. It is advisable to take a picture of this with a newspaper to show the date. To be safe, post a copy through the door. After five days, the locks may then be changed (unless already done so to secure the property or see to any present dangers).
- Any possessions remaining in the property must be stored for a reasonable amount of time.
- Under no circumstance must you deprive the tenant of their rights to access.
- Inform the local authority rent officer of your actions in writing.
- Seek expert advice: the NLA advice line is on hand for NLA members.
- Always obtain a court possession order before taking over the property or re-letting if there is any doubt.
To avoid getting into this kind of situation it is best practice to get a thorough reference on the tenant at the start of the tenancy. Check for rent payments, and visit the property regularly. If you are on good terms with a neighbour, you could ask them to keep an eye on any suspicious movements, or provide a weekly cleaning service.
Finally, it is a good idea to build up a relationship with the tenant and make them aware that if they do go away for an extended period of time that they can let you know.