Preamble: As you read through this article you may think I’m being a touch over the top with some of my recommendations. However, given the extremely onerous penalties (that include damages on top of whatever tenants can convince a court that their goods were worth) that have befallen landlords who fell afoul of these laws I think a belt and braces approach to any potential problem in this area is a wise use of your time and money. I also recommend that you share this article with every landlord you know for the same reason.
I was prompted to write this after yet again sitting in court listening to a tenant attempting to screw a landlord by telling outright lies. All of the circumstances described in the article are real - none are made up for dramatic effect.
It's not my intention to discuss the law surrounding these issues in any depth - that's been done by others. I'm purely interested in laying out what I think you should do if you find yourself in this situation.
Before anyone asks I'm aware that you can ask the court bailiff to remove, store and dispose of tenants' goods, but there are a couple of reasons not to do this in my opinion. Firstly there are some types of common goods that they won't take, so you'll still be stuck dealing with them. Secondly they charge a lot for the service. Better to sort it yourself.
For those of you without the time or inclination to read all the way through here’s a summary:
When you take possession of your property (especially in adverse circumstances where the tenant has already proved to be less than ideal) and there are goods belonging to the tenant left in the property you should do the following:
1. Not agree to let the tenant back in the property to get them.
2. Make a comprehensive video showing all the goods exactly as they were left at the end of the tenancy.
3. Hire a professional, reputable firm to remove the goods.
4. Have the firm take them to a storage facility that is open at hours where the tenant could reasonably be expected to be able to attend to retrieve the goods.
5. Write to the tenant at their forwarding/contact address and let them know where the goods are and that they have 14 days from the service date of the letter in order to collect their goods or you will dispose of them.
6. If the tenant comes to collect the goods before the 14 days are up and leaves some behind then make sure that you instruct the storage people to keep any remaining goods for the full 14 days, even if the tenant tells them that the remaining goods are unwanted and should be thrown away
7. Ask the storage facility for CCTV of the tenant attending if possible.
8. Do not get into a discussion with the tenant over the value of the goods.
9. Send them the bill for any costs accrued by taking the above steps.
10. Pursue them through the courts if they don’t pay.
OK, for those still with me here is the long version explaining the reasons why I suggest the above actions:
1. Not agreeing to let the tenant back in: The tenant can agree a time and date with you to return for their goods, not turn up to the appointment and then later claim in court that YOU didn’t turn up. They can frame this as a way of you preventing them from gaining access to their goods and maliciously wasting their time, when of course the opposite is true. We had this exact situation with our agent sitting outside a property whilst the tenant she was waiting for sent us text messages and emails claiming to be outside the property herself with no sign of our colleague. We found out later the reason for this apparently bizarre behaviour: she sent the texts and emails was so that she could have something to produce in court to ‘prove’ to the judge that she was present at the property and we were not. As it happens we were able to produce our own evidence to the contrary, but it was an unnecessarily complex and drawn out issue that could have been completely avoided. In another case the landlord agreed to one appointment after another to which the tenant didn’t show up. He then agreed – against our recommendation, but on the advice of his solicitor – to hold the tenant’s goods longer than 14 days because of this supposed inability of the tenants to turn up and get his goods. Despite this the landlord ended up losing his case and got saddled with a huge bill. If I remember correctly (it was a long time ago) the reason for his loss given by the judge was that because he’d agreed to keep the goods for another period beyond the initial 14 days we’d told him to keep them for, he was then obliged to get the tenant to agree to another period before disposing of them. The tenant denied agreeing the dates that the landlord claimed and because there was nothing in writing it was one word against the other. Now you or I might think that by offering more time over and above the original period the landlord was doing more than the law required, when in fact he was putting his neck in the noose! It was a major error to agree something with a tenant who had already proved to be dishonest without putting it in writing and getting it signed! The landlord was a decent human being and made the mistake of assuming that by giving the tenant what they asked for he would bring the matter to a close more amicably than would have been the case otherwise. He was wrong.
2. Make a video: This is because without indisputable evidence the tenant can claim that you stole/lost/broke his valuables. The best time to start this video is as the bailiff is evicting the tenant, ideally with those parties present at the beginning of recording. This helps to stop the tenant claiming that you stole the most valuable items before starting recording. Of course in the case of the tenant not being present when you take possession this option is not open to you, so you should be prepared to deal with the tenant making outrageous claims about missing goods. Ideally you would have photographs from previous periodic inspections to help fend off this claim.
3. Hire a professional firm to remove the goods: This is also about covering yourself from ridiculous claims made by the tenant, and should the removal firm damage any of the tenant’s goods during removal they will be insured. It’s also about getting a credible witness that’s independent of you to confirm your side of things if the tenant tries to claim you stole their Rembrandt. Accordingly it’s worth asking before you hire them if your removal man would be willing to appear in court should circumstances require. If he wouldn’t then I’d suggest that you hire someone else who would.
4. Taking the goods to a storage facility: This is to ensure that the tenant cannot claim they were denied reasonable chances to access their goods before you disposed of them. A facility where they can just walk in without an appointment anytime during office hours or even weekends nixes any claim they might make about lack of reasonable chances to pick up their belongings.
5. Writing to the tenant: For the avoidance of doubt you should have a clause in their tenancy agreement stating what will happen to any goods that they leave behind. You should also have acquired an alternative contact address for them.
6. The tenant leaving goods behind: We’ve had a situation in the past where the tenant came and collected the majority of her goods and told us to bin the rest. There were still several days left of the 14 day notice period. On the last day of the notice period the tenant came – with a witness – to ask for the rest of her goods. She looked very disappointed when we produced them, so I can only assume that she was hoping we’d binned them as instructed and she would be able to claim we’d done so erroneously.
7. CCTV: This is belt and braces obviously, but will show what the tenant removed and so make it very difficult for them to claim that you’ve lost or binned something that you haven’t.
8. Discussing the value of the goods: The value is irrelevant to whether you disposed of them lawfully or not and getting into a discussion about it and – even worse – disputing the tenant’s valuation of their goods in your court defence can make you look pretty foolish if they are able to produce receipts or other evidence backing up their opinion. Avoiding anything that makes the tenant look correct and you incorrect is paramount. Also if you’ve made a video recording as suggest then the court will be able to see the goods and there will be no need for your subjective descriptions.
9. Needs no elaboration.
10. Needs no elaboration.