Ask the County Law Librarian – Property Left Behind in a Rental Unit
Q: Up until two weeks ago, I was renting a room in a house. I had become friends with the owner and moved in last summer to help us both out with costs. It became very unpleasant to live with her, however, and in December I gave her our agreed-upon 30 days’ notice that I would be moving out. She didn’t take it well, but I managed to move most of my things out (on my own). Due to a family emergency that took me out of the state for a week, I had to leave a few things behind in the garage. When I got back to town and tried to get my stuff, the owner refused! Is she guilty of stealing my things since she won’t let me pick them up? How can I get my stuff back?
A: This scenario is fairly common, and can happen in any situation in which there is a landlord/tenant relationship; for example, whether someone is renting a unit as part of an apartment complex or, as in your case, renting a room in a house. According to California Civil Code section 1965(a)(1), the landlord is required to return, or allow you to collect, your belongings if your request meets two requirements: 1) the request is made within 18 days of vacating the premises, and 2) the request is made in writing and includes a description of the property that was left. The request must be mailed to the landlord’s current address.
If your request meets both requirements, the landlord is legally obligated to respond within five days of receiving the request. She can ask you (in the form of a bill) to pay reasonable costs for storage; if she does, you must pay the charges and pick up the property within 72 hours of receiving the landlord’s demand. What qualifies as “reasonable?” And how should her written request be delivered? Civil Code section 1965 contains the answers to these questions and provides further information on the landlord’s storage of the belongings and any storage costs incurred.
If your request meets both of the above-listed requirements, you agree to pay any costs relating to storage, and your ex-landlord still doesn’t comply, you could sue for actual damages and possibly more, if you believe she acted in bad faith [Civil Code Section 1965(e), (1) and (2)].
If more than 18 days has passed since you moved out and your remaining property is worth less than $300, the landlord is free to dispose of it. If it is worth more than that, the landlord must sell it at a public sale, subtract costs of sale and storage, and turn the rest over to the county. You have a year to claim the net profit from the sale (see Civil Code Sections 1983 and 1988).
As in most legal situations, there are exceptions and qualifications. You should conduct further research to find out how the law applies to your unique circumstances. To read the above mentioned Civil Code sections, go to www.leginfo.ca.gov and select California Law. Put a check box next to the Civil Code, and hit SEARCH. A linkable table of contents should appear. Go to the section you are interested in reading.
Another helpful resource is the book “California Tenants Rights” published by Nolo Press. The book is available at large bookstores, large libraries, directly from the publisher at www.nolo.com and from your local public law library. To find the law library nearest you, go to www.publiclawlibrary.org
For online information, the California Department of Consumer Affairs has made available the publication “Options for a Landlord: When a Tenant’s Personal Property Has Been Left in the Rental Unit: Legal Guide LT-5.” The guide was published in 1996, so you’ll want to make certain that the code sections you might rely on are still current. You can do this by visiting www.leginfo.ca.gov and reading the current laws. The department website also offers an online version of California Tenants: A Guide to Residential Tenants’ and Landlords’ Rights and Responsibilities, for a more comprehensive look at the landlord/tenant relationship.
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