Q: A past tenant of mine who moved out six months ago is now suing me in small claims court, saying I’m withholding her property and that I locked her out.
I did not withhold her property, nor did I lock her out. In fact, I lost one month’s rent because she trashed the apartment before she moved out. I had to put in new carpeting and paint the place because of the damage. As a result of the work I had to do in her unit, I lost one rental month. However, I did not pursue it, as I know this tenant does not have any money to pay for these damages because she still owes me some rent.
Now, after all these months, the tenant is coming up with some excuse to get money from me. She didn’t let me know before today about the lockout or asking for the return of her property. At the time a tenant moves out, if they leave behind trash, stale food in the refrigerator, broken chairs, and a torn and damaged loveseat, do I have to save these items? The tenant took all of her good furniture and things she wanted to keep with her six months ago.
A: Minnesota law outlines a landlord’s duties when a tenant abandons the premises and leaves behind personal property. The statute says that the landlord may sell or dispose of the property 28 days after the tenant abandons the property, but that the landlord shall make reasonable efforts to give the tenant at least 14 days advance notice of any sale. Any costs incurred by the landlord, such as storage costs or advertising expenses, may be deducted from the deposit or the profits from the sale, if any.
A landlord who fails to allow a tenant access to the property within 24 hours of a written demand before the property is stored and within 48 hours after it is stored may be liable for punitive damages as well as actual damages and attorneys’ fees. In your case, it may be that the property was garbage and had no value, but you took an incredible risk disposing of it, and that may come back to haunt you. If you have anyone who can testify as to the condition of the unit, bring them to the hearing. If you have the receipts for cleaning, new carpet and painting (even if they are just for cleaning supplies and paint) you should make sure to bring those items to court.
In the future, you should immediately give the tenant a letter outlining what is in the property and whether it is being sold or trashed, with an opportunity to come and pick up the items in the next 14 days. You should also take pictures and prepare an inventory. There are many cases where valuable items disappear on tenants, or tenants claim they had valuable items that weren’t there when the landlord showed up, so the more you can do to document the condition of a unit and what is on the premises when you arrive, the better for you in the long run.
Kelly Klein is a Minneapolis attorney. Participation in this column does not create an attorney/client relationship with Klein. Do not rely on advice in this column for legal opinions. Consult an attorney regarding your particular issues. E-mail renting questions to firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to Kelly Klein c/o Star Tribune, 425 Portland Av. S., Minneapolis, MN 55488. Information provided by readers is not confidential.