A tenant abandoning a property is a nightmare scenario for any private landlord. It opens up a whole can of worms. There are legalities to consider which don't always seem fair to the landlord. And of course, there will be a financial impact. Landlords can easily find themselves out of pocket.
Many landlords will go through their career without suffering from a tenant abandoning their property. But if it does happen what can you do about it? How do you deal with the situation and what exactly can you do to resolve the issue without losing too much time and money?
What is tenant abandonment?
Doing a runner. A moonlight flit. Tenant abandonment. They all mean the same thing. A tenant has left the property before the end of their tenancy. And without informing the landlord.
Why do tenants abandon properties?
There can be different reasons. But rent arrears is by far the most common. The tenant has got themselves into a hole and they can't afford to pay the rent. You may be pressing them to repay arrears. Or they have simply decided they can't afford it anymore. For some tenants, this reason is enough for them to vanish.
Others may have got a job in another area or have found accommodation elsewhere. Most tenants in this position would tell you and give proper notice to quit. Unfortunately, some people will decide it's easier to just walk away. They won't even think about informing you. They'll just cancel their direct debit, pack their bags and go. The first you know of it is when the usual rent payment doesn’t come through.
But, whatever motivates the tenant to leave you're left in the lurch. And it may be even worse than you realise.
The problems you face when a tenant abandons your property
On the face of it dealing with a tenant leaving a property seems pretty straightforward. OK, it's a hassle and annoying but if a tenant has done a runner at least you've got the property back and you can rent it out again.
Unfortunately, it's not quite as easy as that. One of the biggest issues for you as a landlord is that you have to be absolutely certain the tenant has left before you can even think about renting the property out to someone else. Even though they are absent a tenant still retains their legal rights. You can't simply retake possession of the property.
This is your problem. How do you know the tenant has actually abandoned the property? They may have gone on an extended break. Or they may have every intention of returning. They could even be in the hospital. And the thing is - you can't change the locks or install a new tenant without confirming the abandonment and going through the legal process.
Why you need to act quickly
Abandoned property can lead to some serious issues for you. These include:
No rental income.
Becoming a target for vandals.
Occupied by squatters.
Could void your landlord insurance.
All of the above can have financial consequences. Not to mention the effort and hassle in resolving any of those issues. So, you need to deal with an abandoned property as soon as you can.
What you can and can't do when a tenant abandons your property
Confirm the abandonment
This isn't as easy as it sounds. It isn't simply a case of looking through the windows and deciding the tenant has done a runner. The ideal scenario is for you to contact the tenant and for them to confirm in writing they've abandoned the property. Easier said than done of course. Many tenants, assuming you can track them down, will be unresponsive. Why should they care anymore? Especially if they owe you rent. It's not in their best interests to talk to you.
The problem you have is if the tenant hasn't surrendered the property or you haven't legally taken repossession the tenant still has the right to return during the period covered by the original tenancy agreement. If they do so and find the locks changed, or a new tenant in situ, you could be guilty of illegal eviction.
Get the keys
If you can contact the tenant ask them to return the keys. Or they may have left them behind. But the tenant handing over the keys is the best way to prove abandonment.
Don't enter the property without permission
This is hard to take. But you can’t enter the property. Even if you think the tenant has abandoned it. However, you can do so if you think it's insecure or if you think there may be an issue which makes it unsafe. Gas appliances left on for example.
If you do enter the property on those grounds make sure you're accompanied by an independent witness. If you change the locks you must leave a notice on the door informing the tenant how they can obtain a new key should they return.
Store the tenant's belongings
Even if the tenant has left their possessions behind you still have an obligation to look after them. Avoid the temptation to throw everything in bin bags. And certainly, don't take them to the tip. No matter how tempting that may be. You have to look after the tenant's possessions. If you do move anything take photos before you do so. This way you can prove condition if there are any issues further down the road.
Taking repossession of your property
The Housing and Planning Act 2016 gave landlords new rights in cases of abandonment. You can now take back possession without a court order if the rent is unpaid. You must first serve a warning notice that the tenant must pay the arrears within eight weeks. If there is no response serve a second notice. Five days before the end of the eight weeks period serve a third and final notice. If the tenant fails to respond and doesn't pay the rent the tenancy ends. But, if at any point during the cycle the tenant pays the rent the process stops.
If you're unsure if the tenant has abandoned the property you should serve a Section 21 notice. This way you protect yourself against any claims of unlawful eviction.
A natural end to the drama.
It may well be that the tenant abandons the property a month or two before the scheduled end of the tenancy. If this is the case you should serve a Section 21 notice as you would normally do. The small mercy here is that at least the tenant hasn't bailed out in the middle or at the start of the tenancy which would have a more serious financial impact.
You will, of course, have protected your tenant's deposit at the start of the tenancy. If they abandon the property you can claim unpaid rent from that deposit. You do of course have to prove your case. But abandonment is an example of where the deposit protection scheme benefits the landlord.
Private landlords can find tenants fast by listing their property with MakeUrMove the online letting platform bringing landlords and tenants together.