I am a landlord and one of my tenants left his apartment and all of his things and hasn’t returned. Can I re-enter the apartment? What should I do with his property?

You must be sure that the tenant has abandoned the property. If he is current on his rental payments, he is entitled to possess the apartment and may leave for extended periods of time. However, if he has not paid rent and you know that he has left the apartment without plans to return, or if there are strong indications of such, there are steps you can take to repossess the property.  

First, post a notice in a conspicuous place stating that the tenant must pay rent within one month. This notice should be placed where the tenant would be sure to see it if he returned to the apartment. You may also include in the notice that if the tenant does not respond within a month, you will re-enter and re-let the property. If, after a month, the tenant has not responded and it does not appear that he has returned, then you may re-enter the apartment.  

It is a good idea to keep the tenant’s belongings until a Magistrate judge authorizes you to dispose of them. After you re-enter the apartment, go to the Magistrate and request a court order allowing you to dispose of the property. The general rule is that the clearer the indications of abandonment, the less of a duty the landlord has to safeguard the tenant’s property. If the tenant returns and demands his things after a long period of absence, you will be protected from liability for the value of the tenant’s belongings by the court order. Another way to protect your rights is to include a clause in the lease allowing you to discard of the tenant’s belongings if he or she has not paid rent and has not resided on the premises for a specific length of time.

See also our publication Tenants & Landlords: Rights and Responsibilities

For more information, see: W. Va. Code §§ 37-6-5 to -8, -12 (2015); State ex rel. Payne v. Walden, 156 W. Va. 60, 190 S.E.2d 770 (1972) (questioned by Union Barge Line Corp. v. Marble Cliff Quarries Co., 374 F. Supp. 834 (1974)).