How to Get Back Possessions You Have Left in a Rental Unit: Legal Guide LT-4


HOW TO GET BACK POSSESSIONS
YOU HAVE LEFT IN A RENTAL UNIT

June 2012

When tenants move out of a rental unit, they are also required to remove their possessions. However, tenants may mistakenly leave some behind or not have time to remove all of them. During this time, the landlord has a responsibility to store property with reasonable care.1

California law has specific steps that you may take to have your possessions returned by the landlord.2 When you have followed these steps, the landlord is required by law to return your possessions. If the landlord does not, he or she is liable for damages and a penalty not exceeding $250.00 for each violation.

Please note, however, that leaving behind an animal in or around vacated property is a misdemeanor.3 In that situation, the landlord has a responsibility to call animal control immediately.4

What steps should a tenant take to get possessions returned?

  1. Within 18 days after moving out, write the landlord a letter.
    • Ask for the return your possessions.
    • Describe them.
    • State your current mailing address.
    • You should sign and date the letter.
    • Make a copy of the letter for yourself. It is best if you either send the letter certified mail, or ask for a receipt if you deliver it in person.
  2. If requested, pay the landlord for his or her reasonable costs of removing and storing your possessions.
  3. Agree to a time when you will claim and pick up your possessions. The time must be no more than 72 hours (three days) after the time when you paid the landlord's costs. If no costs were paid, you should agree to pick up the possessions within a reasonable time after the landlord received your letter. The law assumes that three days is a reasonable time.
  4. Pick up the possessions at the agreed place and time.5

Please note: If your landlord, or the landlord's agent or manager, doesn't have your possessions or doesn't have control over them, you cannot use this procedure.6

What if the tenant is unable to take those steps?

If you have moved out of town, are ill or are otherwise unable to take these steps, you can ask a friend or relative to do them for you. This person will be acting as your authorized representative. 7 Although not required, it is a good idea to write a note to the landlord telling him or her that your friend or relative is going to act on your behalf. Sign and date the note, and have your friend or relative sign it, too. Make two copies of the note – one for your friend and one for yourself.

How must a landlord demand payment for the costs of removing and storing a tenant's possessions?

In order to require the tenant to pay these costs, the landlord must:

  • Request in writing (within five (5) days after receiving the tenant's letter requesting return of the possessions) that the tenant pay the reasonable costs of removing and storing the tenant's possessions.
  • List and describe each item of cost for which the tenant is being asked to pay.
  • Mail the letter to the address given in the tenant's letter or give the letter to the tenant personally.8

What costs can a landlord charge?

The costs must be reasonable. They must relate to the moving and storing of the tenant's possessions, and may include:9

  1. The landlord's actual expenses for:
    • Removing the tenant's possessions from the original location to the place of storage.
    • Taking apart the tenant's possessions, if needed, to move them.

    OR

    • The reasonable value of the labor actually provided to remove the tenant's possessions, to take them apart, and/or to transport them.10

    AND

  2. The landlord's actual expenses for storing the tenant's possessions, provided they are reasonable.

The storage costs cannot be more than the fair rental value of the space reasonably required to store the tenant's possessions.11 That is, if all the tenant's possessions would fit in a mini-storage unit of 10 cubic feet, the landlord is not entitled to receive payment for the cost of renting 15 cubic feet.

What if the landlord fails to return the tenant's possessions?

If you have properly followed all of the steps mentioned above, but the landlord has failed to return your possessions at the agreed time or within a reasonable time after you have asked for them, whichever is later, the landlord is liable to you for damages. The law assumes that three days is reasonable amount of time, unless the landlord demands reimbursement for removal and storage of expenses. In that case, the three days begin to run upon your payment of the landlord's storage costs.12

The landlord may be required to pay damages equal to the value of your possessions, and up to $250 for each violation as a penalty.13 If you win in court, the landlord also may be ordered to pay your attorney's fees and court costs. However, if the landlord wins in court, you may be ordered to pay his or her attorney's fees and court costs.14

Can a tenant sue a landlord who, without the tenant's permission, gave the possessions to someone else?

No. If the landlord has followed the law, but has ended up giving your possessions to the wrong person, the landlord cannot be sued.15

For example, Terry Tenant asks the landlord that her possessions be returned. The landlord, following the proper steps, gives Terry the possessions she claimed. Later, Oscar Owner, who also left possessions at the rental unit, writes the landlord asking for his property to be returned. However, Oscar's possessions were claimed and picked up by Terry. Oscar can't sue the landlord. Oscar should ask Terry to return his possessions, and may sue her if she doesn't return them.

What happens if a landlord receives conflicting demands for the same possessions?

If a landlord receives letters from two tenants both asking for the same possessions, the landlord must give them to the person who first requested their return. The landlord cannot be held liable for releasing the possessions.16 He is not required to guess who is the true owner. In the case of documents/records, however, the landlord must presume that the tenant is the owner unless the landlord is given proof otherwise.17

Please consult Legal Guide LT-5, "Options for a Landlord: When a Tenant's Personal Property Has Been Left in the Rental Unit" for information regarding abandoned or lost property left in a rental unit.

NOTICE: We attempt to make our legal guides accurate as of the date of publication, but they are only guidelines and not definitive statements of the law.

Prepared by Richard A. Elbrecht, Supervising Attorney, Legal Services Unit
2012 Revision by Claire Yazigi, Staff Counsel


ENDNOTES

1. Civil Code section 1986.
2. Civil Code section 1965.
3. Civil Code section 597.1.
4. Civil Code section 1816.
5. Civil Code section 1965 (a)(2).
6. Civil Code section 1965 (a).
7. Civil Code section 1965 (a).
8. Civil Code section 1965 (a)(3).
9. Civil Code section 1965 (a)(3) & (b).
10. Civil Code section 1965 (b)(1).
11. Civil Code section 1965 (b)(2).
12. Civil Code section 1965 (e)(1).
13. Civil Code section 1965 (e)(1) and (2).
14. Civil Code section 1965 (e)(3).
15. Civil Code section 1965 (d).
16. Civil Code section 1965 (d).
17. Civil Code section 1983 (a).