Abandonment by your tenants is a serious matter for landlords and can have a number of ramifications for your business. In many cases you probably will not even be aware that your property has been abandoned until you stop receiving rent, which means it could often sit empty for as much as a month in which time it will have been exposed to much higher risk.
You are not allowed to deprive a residential tenant of their occupation of the premises, or to attempt to do so, and could be charged with a criminal offence if you do. This means that even though it may appear that a tenant has abandoned your property, you may be required to obtain a surrender of the property from the tenant, or to obtain a Possession Order from the courts where getting a surrender is not possible. By taking back possession of a property and re-letting it, you could leave yourself legally exposed should a tenant return unexpectedly.
This step-by-step guide will help you ensure that you follow the necessary legal processes and don’t leave yourself open to counter-action by the tenant.
Step 1: Monitoring
If your rental property is left empty at any time, it is vital that you monitor it as closely as possible particularly during the winter. During cold weather your property is at elevated risk from freezing pipes, so you should consider draining down your plumbing whenever it is empty during a cold spell. No matter what time of year your property is abandoned, it will always be at risk from squatters, particularly if the last tenants did not take care to properly secure the building as they left. As soon as you become aware that your property is empty, you are likely to be required to inform your landlord insurance provider of the situation. Landlord insurance is often affected if your property is unoccupied.
Step 2: Dealing with possessions and pets
When a tenant abandons a property, it is common for them to also abandon a number of possessions and sometimes even pets. Unfortunately, the landlord has a legal duty of care to protect possessions that are left behind, even where the tenant has abandoned the property in arrears or after causing damage. Because leaving property behind can be a sign that the tenant intends to return, a landlord also has to be careful not to breach the Protection from Eviction Act 1977.
Step 3: Seeking legal advice
You should always seek legal advice if you believe your property has been abandoned and the best way to keep yourself legally protected is by obtaining a Possession Order. Signs of abandonment might include mail piling up, curtains continuously drawn and empty parking places. Knowing the neighbours can help you in a situation like this, as you can get better information and could have abandonment reported to you much sooner. When you talk to neighbours about issues of abandonment, you should try to establish when the tenants were last spotted and whether they gave any indication of whether or not they were coming back.
Take neighbours names and ask if they would be willing to provide a statement if required (though this does not necessarily mean that they will, so legal advice will need to be taken in these circumstances).
If you do decide that you have reasonable grounds to enter the property, you should do so carefully and with impartial witnesses where possible. If you find that the place is in fact occupied, you should prepare to leave quickly and hope that your tenants understand that you were entering because you feared for their safety.
Step 4: Entering the property
Never force entry, only use your spare keys and if you find your way barred then you should refer the matter to the police or the courts. Once inside, you need to establish that the property has been abandoned beyond all reasonable doubt. Because an agent is required to report abandonment to the landlord without delay, agents providing a full management service need to be especially vigilant in order to protect their own interests.
Step 5: Updating your insurance
Let your landlord house insurance provider know that the property is unoccupied.