Griffin & Murphy, LLP, is a boutique law firm in Washington, D.C. concentrating its practice in real estate law (including development, finance, leasing, zoning and condominium conversions), as well as estate planning and probate, civil litigation, and business law. The attorneys of Griffin & Murphy, LLP are licensed to practice law in the District of Columbia, Maryland and Virginia. Griffin and Murphy, LLP was founded in 1981.
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I recently sublet a room in my apartment. The sublease ended on Feb. 7, but the subtenant left on January 20 and hasn’t returned. After many attempts to call him and email him, he has not responded about retrieving his belongings. At what point is his stuff considered “abandoned”? When can I throw it out? How much longer do I have to sit with his junk in my apartment? I would appreciate any help. Thank you!
Answer from Griffin & Murphy, LLP:
Usually, the rental of a single room in an apartment or in a house by an owner or master tenant does not create a traditional landlord-tenant relationship. Roomers have less rights under D.C. law than regular tenants do. For instance, landlords are prevented by D.C. law from using self-help to remove their tenants from the leased property, but landlords may use self-help with regard to roomers. This is a complicated area of the law and legal advice should be sought in each instance before acting. Answer continues after the jump.
We don’t know whether there was written agreement with the “subtenant” or if there were other circumstances that may have elevated his status from that of a roomer to that of a tenant, so we will answer your question as if this person is a subtenant rather than a roomer.
It is surprisingly common for tenants to leave some of their personal property behind at the end of their lease term, and landlords often find themselves in the position that you are in of having to deal with the removal of personal property that appears to have been abandoned by the tenant. Sometimes the lease agreement will contain a provision setting forth the date on which the tenancy ends and the number of days the tenant has thereafter to remove his belongings from the space. If the lease agreement does contain such a provision, the tenant could be held liable for additional rent because the tenant retained possession of the leased premises after the time period provided in the lease. We can only presume that your sublease did not specifically provide for a date by which the subtenant was to remove his personal property from the room, so your options will be governed by the common law of D.C.
As a general rule, in the absence of a controlling provision in the lease agreement, a landlord must provide a tenant with a reasonable period of time after the expiration of the lease term to remove his personal property from the premises. A tenant does not forfeit or lose title to his personal property immediately by neglecting to remove it at the end of his tenancy. The tenant has a reasonable amount of time to remove his personal property from the room and he also has a reasonable right to re-enter the house or apartment to remove his property. Although the tenant is allowed to enter the premises to remove his property, the tenant does not have a right to continue to occupy the space as though the lease term did not expire. If the tenant does not remove his property from the premises within a reasonable period of time, the property is presumed to have been abandoned by the tenant and the landlord can dispose of it.
You have taken the right approach by repeatedly contacting your subtenant to remind him that he needs to remove his property from the room he rented now that his lease term has expired. Although your subtenant has not been in the space since January 20th, the lease expired just a few days ago. There is no hard and fast rule as to what is considered to be a reasonable period of time under these circumstances, but it is safe to say that three days is not enough, unless you have another person who is ready and willing to rent this room. If you are not trying to re-rent this room, we think providing your subtenant with one or two weeks after the expiration of the sublease to remove his property seems reasonable. However, if the property that he left behind is valuable, you might want to give the subtenant more time because it is less likely that such property would be voluntarily abandoned by the subtenant. Rather than asking your subtenant when he plans to pick up his belongings, it might be helpful to specify the date by which you expect him to remove the property from the room. Also, you should mention that if the property has not been removed by the specified date, you will presume that he has abandoned the property and that you will then be free to dispose of it as you see fit.
This response was prepared by Mark G. Griffin and Patrick D. Blake of Griffin & Murphy, LLP. The material contained in this response has been prepared for informational purposes only and should not be relied upon as legal advice or as a substitute for a consultation with a qualified attorney. Nothing in this response should be considered as either creating an attorney-client relationship between the reader and Griffin & Murphy, LLP or as rendering of legal advice for any specific matter.