Handling runaway tenants who leave because of COVID-19

One of the risks of being a landlord is that tenants are inherently mobile and not always easily found after they leave. Before COVID-19, we have observed many instances of tenants leaving the premises without proper notice to the landlord, and exiting the rental unit without personal belongings in tow or disposing of rubbish left behind.

Whether moving in with a significant other, relocating elsewhere because of a new job, or defecting from the Bay Area because of high rents, congestion and other not-so-endearing factors, the “runaway tenant” is certainly not a new phenomenon. Yet with the public health crisis, we have seen a precipitous spike in the number of tenants who are seeking greener pastures, particularly those who have become unemployed or otherwise inflicted with circumstances that have thrown their lives in turmoil.

When the landlord or property manager discovers a tenant has flown the coop, it can be a harrowing experience but one that can be made a little less stressful with a solid understanding of the law and knowledge about what is around the corner.

First off, what does the lease agreement anticipate?

We would be remiss not to point out that the rental agreement should spell out the consequences in the event a tenant leaves before the end of the lease term. However, a recurring theme we have seen in our practice is the use of stale, templated, or outdated agreements that do not prepare for this contingency. Many a would-be-absconder would be discouraged from breaking the lease if you were to inform them of the binding nature of the agreement they signed, and that measures may be taken to recoup the lost rental income and other peripheral expenses associated with re-renting the property.

Is it a blank canvas or not?

When the tenant cannot be reached, the first task is to determine whether in fact the rental unit has been vacated. There will clearly be telltale signs with removed possessions, spoiled food, empty closets, mail piling up , and the like. Neighbors might be asked if there were any recent sightings of the tenant, or if there were any observations of a move having taken place, a Herculean project hard to conceal from neighboring tenants.

This detective work should be thoroughly documented, in the not-so-rare event there is a dispute down the road. We also hasten to say that tenants have the right to “quiet enjoyment” without landlord interference and that the owner or their agent can only enter the unit for permissible reasons and then, only with proper notice.

You should be cognizant of these limitations in your personal sleuthing, and exercise discretion in entering the unit. Taking matters into your own hands and snooping around are reserved only for cases when there is a strong suspicion the dwelling has been abandoned. Under California Civil Code 1954, abandonment or surrender of the premises are grounds to enter the unit, but you should tread lightly.

Starting the process of recovering possession of the unit

When there is a likelihood that the tenant has vacated the unit and hasn’t handed in the keys or let the landlord know that he or she is gone, a Notice of Belief of Abandonment can be served. This concise document can be prepared after 14 consecutive days of non-payment of rent with an accompanying belief that the tenant has gone “poof.”

This notice alerts tenants that their lease agreement will terminate at least 18 days from the date the notice was mailed or 15 days from delivering the notice in person. In addition to explaining the consequences, the Notice of Belief of Abandonment reminds the tenants what their obligations are if they elect to stay in the property. This is an important document that must be prepared and served correctly, and so it is best prepared with the assistance of an attorney.

Finders keepers? No.

Given no signs of life in the rental unit, the landlord cannot just help himself or herself to the items left behind. The law dictates that the owner does everything humanly possible to alert tenants that personal possessions still remain and if any belongings go unclaimed, they must be disposed of in accordance with law.

This can get tricky because even after making a clean break from the unit, the tenant can resurface and raise hell to get back what is rightfully theirs. In the eventuality of litigation, the narrative we want to articulate at Bornstein Law is that you have made a good faith effort to return any possessions.

Parting thoughts

Compassion, open communication, and diplomacy are the hallmarks of a good rental relationship in ordinary times, but especially valuable now. While we urge leniency for tenants who have been temporarily displaced, we also know that rental units cannot remain dormant without generating rental income, and so a balance should be struck.

Managing these types of awkward conversations and relationships is exactly what we excel at.