Fear of Abandonment: What to Do when a Tenant Leaves without taking their Stuff
Occasionally, a manufactured housing community provider/manager finds themselves with an abandoned home and uncertain about 1) how to lawfully retake possession of the lot and 2) store and/or dispose of the home and remaining personal property. This article identifies some important aspects to consider when addressing abandoned lots so you can better manage abandonment scenarios and expediently prepare the property for leasing to a new family.
When is a Manufactured Housing Community lot abandoned?
Under the Manufactured/Mobile Home Landlord-Tenant Act (RCW 59.20), which governs tenancies in manufactured housing communities in Washington state, a tenant abandons their home when they 1) default in rent, and 2) “by absence and by words or actions reasonably indicates the intention not to continue tenancy.” RCW 59.20.030(1). It is not enough that a tenant has not visited the property in several months. The tenant must both be behind in rent and vacate the property, evidenced by their absence, words, or actions an intent to abandon their personal property. The evidence required for intent to abandon must be clear and convincing.
A lot cannot be considered abandoned if the tenant or any other occupant continue to reside there, even after a default in rent. If the tenant returns to the lot at any point before the housing provider lawfully retakes possession of the lot and the tenant’s personal property, the abandonment process must immediately stop. The tenant’s return continues the tenancy. If the rent default remains uncured by the tenant, normal procedures to terminate the tenancy must be followed before taking any further action to address any personal property remaining on the lot.
A written letter from the tenant indicating their intent to abandon the property is ideal, but certainly not required as tenants rarely notify of an intent to abandon. Other ways to document a tenant’s abandonment include speaking with neighbors, who may know of the tenant’s intent to abandon or their new whereabouts. Calling the tenant’s emergency contact or a secured party listed in the lease agreement may also prove helpful.
What should I do when I first discover an abandoned home?
At this stage, I highly recommend communicating with an attorney knowledgeable in this field before taking any further action. Factors that may impact your abandonment procedures include 1) whether the tenant can be reached or is deceased, 2) whether there is a secured party interest in the home, or 3) whether rent is owing at the time of abandonment and/or whether the lot is otherwise in compliance with the terms of the lease agreement and the community rules and regulations. Unless an emergency situation is observed in an abandoned home, the provider should not actually enter the home or disturb any of the personal property inside the home. If you do have to enter the property for an emergency, make sure to photograph the interior condition of the home at the time of your entry to confirm the existence and location of personal effects inside the home. This will help you defend against claims that you unlawfully took any personal property should the home be unlawfully accessed by third parties during the abandonment process.
After speaking with an attorney, a housing provider must post and mail notice, making a reasonable effort to notify any party with a potential interest in the home that the provider believes the home abandoned. While the provider can store the property elsewhere, as may be more common in standard residential evictions, it is generally best to leave a manufactured housing tenant’s property safely stored within their home. It is recommended that special family keepsakes, such as photographs or other family heirlooms, be stored where practical for a period of six months, as these items are often irreplaceable.
The manufactured/mobile home is itself considered personal property. Unlike an eviction action, a landlord’s lien can be foreclosed without court intervention and without starting a lawsuit. In cases where a tenant has abandoned the home, a landlord-lien foreclosure provides a simple and relatively fast disposition of a tenant’s home. A landlord can foreclose its landlord lien by selling the manufactured/mobile home at a public auction after providing reasonable notice of the public sale This lien right is capped to no more than four months’ rent and any surplus must be paid to the abandoning tenant. It is highly recommended that you consult a legal professional before attempting to enforce your lien rights.
In addition, if you obtain a money judgment against a tenant resulting from an unlawful detainer action, you can then seek the assistance of the county sheriff where the property is located to enforce a Writ of Execution against the home. In this scenario, the sheriff will host a public auction, usually onsite, and auction the home off to the highest public bidder.
Finally, assuming the home has a secured party interest, you can notify that secured party about the abandonment and their liability to continue paying monthly rent or face the foreclosure of their interest in the home. The secured party can pay the back rent or otherwise assist the tenant in performing their obligations under the lease until the situation can be resolved. Obtaining assistance from a secured party can be tricky because a secured party’s interests may directly oppose the housing provider’s legal rights and they frequently transfer their interests to succeeding institutions.
*This article was prepared by Michael McLaughlin, Managing Attorney at Michael D. McLaughlin, PLLC, in consultation with RHAWA and attorney Deric N. Young of Jack W. Hanemann P.S. Since becoming a lawyer in 2014, Michael has centered his practice around providing MHC landlords comprehensive legal counsel on transactional matters and in litigation. Over the years, Michael has helped many affordable housing providers resolve matters concerning abandoned personal property in Manufactured Housing Communities.