Q. We leased our house to an unmarried couple for a year, but shortly after they moved in, they split up, and the man who stayed couldn’t pay the full rent.
We tried to work with him for months, but things went from bad to worse, and we finally asked him to leave. He agreed, and he spent more than a month moving things out little by little.
He had also changed the locks so his old girlfriend couldn’t get in, without giving us a key, so for a time we couldn’t get in at all. Last week we went to the house to find it unlocked with the new keys on the kitchen counter and a note from the man saying he was out.
But he has left a whole lot of stuff. We know we are supposed to store it for him for 30 days, etc., but we think the month-plus that he had locked the house on us and left his belongings there ought to count as that storage time — he’s cost us thousands of dollars already. Besides, he obviously doesn’t want it all — can’t we just get rid of it?
A. The short answer to your question is no, you may not dispose of the property without giving the required 30-day notice to your tenants that you have their property. You must also keep the property in a safe and secure location, and your notification has to include a full inventory of what you have. The tenants have 14 days from the date they receive your notice to contact you and make arrangements to pick up their property.
Then, if they don’t show up, you can get rid of it and apply any proceeds to the money they owe you. If any item is worth more than $750, however, you must notify the state of Maine and get its permission to dispose of it. Failing to follow the law to the letter could result in a lawsuit against you, potentially resulting in costly penalties in addition to legal fees.
Your predicament raises some questions you did not raise:
· Was there a lease? A well-drafted lease would provide that your tenants would owe you for rent until the expiration of the lease, as well as for costs associated with you collecting the rent, storing their property, court costs and legal fees.
· Is there a security deposit? If so, you may be able to recoup some of your losses from the security deposit.
Lease or no lease, married or unmarried, security deposit or no security deposit, abandonment or no abandonment, you can’t just get rid of the property without notifying both tenants that you have their property and giving them time to pick it up.
There are ways you could protect yourself from this happening again through a lease and by acting sooner when things start going downhill, such as when the tenants stopped paying the full rent. A lawyer who specializes in landlord-tenant law could help you with these issues now and help you avoid similar problems in the future.
This column is a service of the Lawyer Referral and Information Service of the Maine State Bar Association. Its contents are a general response to the question and do not constitute legal advice. Questions are welcome. E-mail AAL@mainebar.org, describe your question and note you are a BDN reader. Written questions mailed to “Ask a Lawyer,” Bangor Daily News, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor, 04402-1329, will be forwarded to the LRIS.