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No longer at this address: Abandoned rental properties
The figures make poor reading. Rent arrears have passed the £250 million mark in England and Wales; 560,000 tenants are behind with their rent and 133,000 may be evicted and lose their homes. Small wonder, then, that some do not wait to be evicted but walk away abandoning the rented home and frequently many of their possessions.
Often the first sign that a tenant has “walked, done a runner, or become a gone away” – to use letting agent slang – is non payment of rent. Reminder and demand letters go unanswered, the telephone is not answered and mobiles click off when the agent’s name appears on the phone display.
Agents owe a clear duty to their landlords to identify cases of abandonment as early as possible to avoid further loss of rent, frost damage in winter and the risk of squatters. It is not unknown for tenants about to slip away to hand keys to friends or even relative strangers.
There are also duties to tenants in respect of personal possessions left behind which remain the property of the tenant and should be stored safely for a reasonable period, two to three months, at the expense of the tenant. Proceeds of sale can be offset against money the tenant owes.
WHAT IS ABANDONMENT?
A situation where a tenant leaves, often owing rent, without it being clear that the tenancy has been surrendered by returning keys to the agent.
Non payment of rent, failure to respond to letters sent by the landlord or to telephone calls.
Early inspection of the property after giving written notice of the visit as set out in the tenancy agreement, retaining a copy of the notice is essential. Look for visible signs, curtains drawn in daylight hours, unopened mail visible through the letter box. Unused waste bins, empty car parking spaces.
Check with neighbours as to tenant’s absence, expressing cause for concern that letters and phone calls remain unanswered. Do not peer through windows or attempt to look through rear doors until after contact with neighbours, since burglary may be suspected and the police called.
5. Cautious entry
If abandonment appears very likely use management keys to enter the property, always accompanied by a colleague or the landlord. In the unlikely event that the tenant is in residence, explain you were concerned that the tenant was ill or may have suffered a domestic accident and apologise that a visit was made without appointment.
6. Obvious Signs
Unused food in cupboards, freezers and refrigerators are obvious signs. Look out for utilities being turned off; personal effects, particularly clothing, missing – although it is common for bulky items such as furniture and bedding to be left behind. TVs, audio equipment and white goods often remain since they are frequently subject to hire purchase or lease agreements. Unopened mail, postmark dates will often provide a clue as to the date of departure.
7. Immediate action
Make the property secure, change locks and drain water systems or provide low level heating in winter months. Remove waste food and empty indoor waste bins. Make a photographic record of the condition of the property.
8. Advise Landlord
Facilitate accompanied landlord visit where possible and take instructions.
Tenants may not have abandoned the property but be ‘missing’ due to:-
• Prolonged and unexpected absence on holiday
Enquiries from neighbours, employers or next of kin if known must be carefully managed and recorded in writing.
10. Beyond Reasonable Doubt
Once agents have established beyond reasonable doubt that the property has been abandoned, a permanent notice should be fixed to the door(s) of the property including:-
• Tenant’s name
• Property address
• Agent’s name, address and contact details
• Instructions to the tenant that the agent believes the property to be abandoned
• The agent should be contacted immediately
• If no contact is made within 14 days, the tenant will be deemed to have abandoned the tenancy
• The notice should be signed and witnessed by the agent
Once the notice has expired the agent/ landlord can take possession of the property. Section 8 Notices should have expired meanwhile so that a mandatory Possession Order can be obtained as a belt and braces approach.
12. Duty to the tenant
Every reasonable precaution should be taken to avoid taking possession of a property that has not been abandoned but left vacant by the tenants through no fault of their own.
13. The tenant’s personal goods
These remain the property of the tenant and may not be disposed of without reasonable cause. However, left food, soiled clothing and bed linen can be bagged up and taken to the local tip together with damaged and broken furniture and effects. Items in good useable condition should be listed and stored for a period of two to three months dependent on size and value. Eventual disposal rarely brings any reward, but proceeds of sale, if any, can be offset against sums due from the tenant. Local charities will often collect unwanted but useful items free of charge. Mail should be marked RTS in bold letters with the words GONE AWAY, ADDRESS UNKNOWN written boldly on the envelope in capital letters. Direct mail and free newspapers are best placed in a waste paper bin and removed from the property before cleaning and refurbishment. A pile of unwanted mail on the inside doormat is a real disincentive to potential new tenants viewing the property.
14. Reducing the problem
Tracing a defaulting tenant and checking whether abandonment has taken place is easier if a full set of information is obtained from the tenant as part of the pre-tenancy and referencing process and should include all of the following, in addition to referees’ names and addresses and telephone numbers.
• Next of kin (2), family members, not friends’ addresses, telephone numbers and relationships
• Full details of employers, department head name and telephone number with course and tutor details for students
• Car; make, model, colour, registration number; details of finance company if applicable
• NHI number
• Photograph of passport and driving licence Any tracing agent provided with this information should be able to find the defaulter within 14 days.
15. Where do they go?
Rarely very far, those who move away long distances or go abroad almost always return to their home territory within a few months or at the most after a year. So keep a look out!
16. What do they leave behind?
Furniture and personal effects are common currency. What kind of relationship breakdown leaves children’s toys, clothes, cot and pram in an abandoned home? Fish are awkward to move and dogs are, sadly, abandoned or turned loose. One of Practitioner’s pet cats was one of two tiny kittens left without food and water in a flat that was found beautifully clean but totally empty after the keys were put through the agent’s office letter box over a weekend.
Abandonments are cost and trouble to landlords and agents; but it should be remembered that each instance isn’t necessarily a cynical skipping of rent obligations; it usually represents a personal tragedy, the loss of a home that was once a place of love, hope and ambition.