Abandoned Property Law in Arizona

Most questions about abandoned property arise in the context of residential rental agreements and storage unit rentals.  In Arizona, those questions are answered by state statutes that provide clear guidance about the rights and duties of the various parties.

Residential Rentals

Lawyers frequently get questions from both landlords and tenants about personal property left in a rental house or apartment.  Those questions are answered by Arizona Revised Statute (A.R.S.) § 33-1370.  The statute tells us that the property is considered “abandoned” if the tenant: (a) has been absent from the dwelling unit without informing the landlord for at least 7 days; and (b) the rent is past due for at least 10 days; and (c) there is no evidence of the tenant’s occupancy other than the personal property.

Of course, the tenant can go on vacation without informing the landlord, but if he is more than 10 days late on the rent, there are no cars parked at the residence, no mail delivery, and no other evidence the renter is living there, the landlord can proceed on the assumption that the tenant has abandoned the property.  At that point, can the landlord swoop into the apartment or house and clean out the furniture and other personal property?  No, of course not.  First, the landlord must post a notice of abandonment on the front door or in some other conspicuous place.  That way, if the renter is there, he will know to contact the landlord immediately.  The landlord must also mail the notice to the tenant by certified mail, return receipt requested.  The notice must be sent to the tenant’s last known address and to any alternate addresses he has provided.

Five days after posting and mailing the notice, the landlord has the right to reclaim the dwelling unit.  (This assumes the tenant has not contacted the landlord).  If the tenant has left his personal property in the dwelling unit, the landlord has the right to move that property to another location and store it for the tenant.  Storing the property allows the landlord to rent the abandoned apartment or house to another tenant.  The abandoning tenant will lose his or her security deposit. Once the landlord moves and stores the property, he must notify the tenant of its location by using the same procedure described earlier, certified mail with return receipt to all known addresses.

After removing the personal property, the landlord need only store it for a period of 10 days.  During that 10-day period, the landlord must take “reasonable care” of the property.  That means he cannot store it outdoors or in an unsafe location.  If the property is stolen or destroyed because of unsafe storage, the landlord can be held responsible.  

After the 10-day storage period has elapsed, the landlord is free to sell the property, retain the money, and apply it to outstanding rent and costs.  For example: let’s assume the landlord needed to re-rent the apartment, so he stored the old tenant’s furniture, appliances and other goods in a commercial storage unit.  Using a commercial storage unit is one of his options.  He can deduct the moving and storage costs as well as the outstanding rent from the sale price.   However, that is not the end of the landlord’s responsibilities.  If there is money left after deducting the rent and expenses, the landlord is to mail the excess to the tenant’s last known address.  Of course, that is not practical if the last known address is the abandoned apartment.  If the landlord does not know where the tenant is, he must retain records of the unpaid rent, storage costs and sale proceeds as well as any excess money owed to the tenant for a period of 12 months.

Now, let’s assume that 4 days into the storage period, the tenant contacts the landlord and asks for the return of his property.  The tenant cannot legally reclaim his stuff until he has paid the cost of removing and storing the property in full.  He can, however, collect his clothes, tools of his trade, financial records, medical records and identification documents without paying those fees.  As with most legal issues, conversations and phone calls are not enough.  The tenant is required to give the landlord written notice that he intends to reclaim his property during the storage period.  Once he gives the written notice, he has 5 days to collect his things.  The tenant must pay the landlord only for the storage fees and cost of removal.  The landlord cannot hold the tenant’s property as ransom for unpaid rent.

Can the landlord destroy the abandoned property?  That option is available only when the written terms of the rental agreement allow it and when the landlord makes a reasonable determination that the property is not worth enough to sell.  The landlord cannot destroy important identification documents like passports or birth certificates.

All these issues and requirements are spelled out in the statute.  Please remember to always read the rental agreement in full.  Know your rights and obligations under the agreement.  Be aware that if the tenant walks away from the lease, he has very limited time to recover his property before it is gone for good. If you are a landlord, learn your responsibilities and make certain you comply with the statute.

Self-Service Storage Units

A different set of state statutes governs property in self-service storage units.  A.R.S. § 33-1701 to § 33-1706.  If you rent a storage unit for your personal property, read the agreement carefully. State law gives the owner of the storage facility a lien on your stored items.  The law requires the agreement to inform you of the lien and that the lien goes into effect as soon as you fail to pay the rent in a timely fashion. If you fail to pay the rent on time, the owner is permitted to add late fees to your bill.  

If you are in default, the storage facility must notify you in writing.  It can be snail mail to your last known address or by email.  That notice will include a demand for payment.  The facility must wait at least 7 days to give you a chance to pay the bill.  If there is no payment, the facility will send a second notice, this time by first class mail. The second notice will summarize the charges owed, give you at least 14 days to make payment, and inform you that your property will be sold at auction if the bill is not paid within the specified time.  (If the occupant lives outside the continental U.S., he must be allowed 30 days to pay).  The rules are slightly different if there are automobiles involved.  

If the unit contains “protected property,” and if the facility knows there is protected property in the unit, that property cannot be sold.  Protected property is defined by A.R.S.§ 33-1701 and includes documents containing personal information, alcoholic beverages, pharmaceuticals, and firearms.  The statutes contain more information about notifying lienholders, indemnifying the facility if it complies with the rules, and spelling out the rights of the individual purchasing the property at auction.  I have provided links to the relevant statutes if you need more information.

With both storage units and residential dwellings, the renter’s time frame for recovering his property is short.  The abandoned property laws specify the rights of both the landlord and renter, but the law favors the owner’s right to replace a defaulting renter with a paying tenant without lengthy delay.


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