Tenant Property and Property Left Behind

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What is considered tenant property:

Anything that is owned or purchased by the tenant is considered tenant property. This includes things stored in shared spaces such as the garage, attic, basement, yard, or porch. 

What landlords can do to tenant's property:

In most cases, the landlord cannot take a tenant's property or even things they think are a tenant's trash. However, there are some exceptions, depending on whether the tenant is still living in the apartment, is being evicted, or has already left the apartment. Information on what can happen to a tenant's property is listed below. 

*Note on medications or medical equipment: A landlord cannot seize prescription medications or medical equipment. Suppose a tenant moves out or is evicted and leaves these items behind. In that case, the landlord must always store them for at least seven days and return them promptly when the tenant asks, no matter what. Wis. Stats. 704.05(am).

If the tenant is still living in the apartment: A landlord cannot take a tenant's property while the tenant is living in the apartment except for the following reasons:

  • Landlord Lien: A landlord lien is when a landlord takes possession of a tenant's property as collateral until a tenant pays a bill. If the bill remains unpaid, the landlord can keep the property as payment. This can only happen if it was included as a nonstandard rental provision as a part of the lease when the tenant signed it. Per Wis. Stats. 704.11, ATCP 134.09(4), the landlord lien must also be on a separate piece of paper when signing the lease. Otherwise, it is void.
  • Unauthorized parked vehicles: A landlord can tow an unauthorized vehicle from the rental property, which means any vehicle besides the one the tenant owns. What the landlord can do will depend on whether they post a sign prohibiting unauthorized vehicles:

Tip for tenants: If there is going to be a different vehicle than usual parking in a tenant's spot, then to avoid getting towed, the tenant should immediately give the landlord a detailed description of the vehicle in writing. 

If the tenant is being evicted (day of eviction):

Any policies about property left behind regarding moving out also apply if a tenant is being evicted. In this case, if the landlord wrote in the lease that they won't move and store any property left behind after a tenant moves out, they can remove the property however they want to. They can throw it out, sell it, donate it, etc. A sheriff may be present when the landlord removes any property during an eviction. However, it is optional if the landlord notifies the sheriff beforehand that the landlord will remove the property themselves. The landlord must follow anything they wrote in the lease regarding property left behind, and the landlord can only change the agreement in the middle of the lease term with the tenant's permission.

Tip for tenants: After an eviction notice, the tenant has a certain amount of time before a sheriff can be called to enforce an eviction. In that period between the notice and getting evicted, the tenant is still legally living at the apartment, so the landlord cannot seize tenant property unless there is a nonstandard rental provision, such as a landlord lien. The exceptions in the above paragraph on "if the tenant is still living in the apartment" apply to this situation. 

If the tenant's lease is over:

Suppose the landlord wrote in the lease that they wouldn't move or store property left behind after a tenant's lease ends. In that case, the landlord can remove the property however they want to and dispose of it, sell it, or donate it as they see fit. Whatever the landlord wrote in the lease about storing property left behind cannot be changed in the middle of a lease without the tenant's permission. If the lease does not say anything about property left behind, then the landlord must move or store the tenant’s belongings, even if they think they are trash. They must notify the tenant of the location where the belongings are being stored within 7 days of move-out, and/or give 30 days’ notice if they are planning to dispose of the tenant’s belongings.

What landlords can do to property in shared spaces:

  • If tenant property violates lease rules: In many leases, the landlord will have rules about tenant property not being allowed in hallways/porches/backyards because these items can block passageways or otherwise be fire hazards. However, even if the tenant's property violates one of these safety rules, the landlord cannot take the tenant's property. They must notify the tenant in writing that they should move their property and state that they will be fined if the tenant does not. An example letter is here.
  • If tenant property needs to be moved temporarily: If the landlord wants to move a tenant's property temporarily, such as for a pest control treatment, or is under orders from a building/fire/public health inspector, the landlord can't touch the property and must notify the tenant in writing to move their property. If the tenant does not do so, the tenant can be fined. 
  • A landlord can temporarily move the tenant's property if it is an emergency. However, they must inform the tenant where the property is stored. 

Tenant-installed fixtures:

  • While living at the apartment: A tenant can install a fixture but must get permission from the landlord, ideally in writing. This can be shelving, a ceiling fan, or an air-conditioning unit. While the tenant lives in the apartment, the tenant-installed fixture, even in a shared space, is considered the tenant's property, even if the landlord did not approve it. If the tenant installs fixtures and the landlord does not want them, then the landlord can remove the fixture and charge the tenant the cost of removing the fixture. However, the landlord cannot keep the fixture, such as an air conditioning unit, and must return it to the tenant. 
  • After moving out: If the tenant installed a fixture and leaves it behind when they move out, that fixture becomes the landlord's property. Suppose the landlord does not approve the fixture installation. In that case, they may charge the tenant for removing the fixture and restoring the property to its former condition. 

What to do if a landlord takes property illegally:

A tenant can take the following actions depending on the situation:

  • The tenant can write a letter to the landlord to ask them to return the property or give the tenant access to it. The letter can include the relevant statutes and ordinances and a deadline for the property's return.
  • The tenant can call the police or sheriff to report an illegal eviction. An example would be if the landlord does not have an eviction court order but acts like they are evicting the tenant and throws the tenant's things away (or threatens to throw them away). Without the assistance of the sheriff.  ATCP 134.09(7), Wis. Stats. 799.45(3m), 2013 Wis. Act 76, Sec. 40 - 57 (3/1/14)
  • File a complaint with Consumer Protection online or call (800) 422-7128.
  • File in small claims court for either a replevin (return of property) or money damages case. For example, if the landlord took a couch off a porch and refused to return it. For more information, contact the TRC for a connection to an attorney.

What to do with property left behind by trespassers:

What defines a trespasser: A trespasser is not a tenant (they have never paid rent and are not on the lease). Still, unlike a guest, a trespasser is there without the permission of either the tenant or the landlord. "Criminal trespassing" is when someone intentionally enters or remains in a dwelling without permission of another person who is allowed to be on the property and creates a disturbance or breach of peace.

If a trespasser is removed, what should a landlord do with their property: 

Landlords have to hold the property of a trespasser for seven days from the date the landlord finds the property. After that, landlords can get rid of it in any way they find appropriate unless the trespasser requests it before the landlord disposes it. Wis. Stat 704.055(2)(a), 2015 Wis. Act 176, Sec. 21.

Suppose a landlord gets rid of the property via private or public sale. In that case, the landlord may send the sale proceeds minus any sale costs and storage costs to the Department of Administration for homeless programs. Wis. Stat. 704.055(2)(b), 2015 Wis. Act 176, Sec. 21.

For landlords: Third parties and trespasser property left behind: 

Creditors and others with an ownership or financing interest in the property (liens, etc.) may claim the property at any time before the landlord disposes of it. Suppose there is a contract to dispose of the property. In that case, the third party pays the landlord's expenses for disposing of the property. Wis. Stat. 704.055(3), 2015 Wis. Act 176, Sec. 21.