If a tenant skips out in the dead of night and leaves a house full of junk, landlords have to store it at least a month before they can sell or trash it.

This doesn't happen too often, landlords say, but it can be an expensive proposition, with the deck decidedly stacked against the landlord.

The issue is increasingly important because a growing number of people have become inadvertent landlords once they were unable to sell their home.

Kate Gatto is a landlord with four properties as well as the broker-owner of Re/Max Community in Mays Landing. People, she said, will leave "everything. Living room furniture, clothing, toys. Sometimes the tenant will say to the landlord, 'I'll be back for my stuff,' but doesn't return."

"It's a shame what landlords have to go through," she said.

At one property in the Meadowbrook condominium complex, she said, a client's tenant got several months behind on rent and fled.

"When they went back in there to rerent, they found all her belongings there," Gatto said. "She kinda ran out because there were so many belongings there."

State law is clear on the matter, said David A. Spitalnick, a Northfield attorney who has practiced for 50 years.

"You have to give them notice that you're putting it away and storing it and where it can be found," for 30 days from the delivery of the notice, he said, "and if they don't claim it, you can dispose of it."

Otherwise, a landlord could potentially be sued, be found liable, and have to repay the value of the belongings.

"It's just normal furniture, nothing special," he said of the properties he's dealt with where tenants have left possessions behind. "I haven't run across one where they've left an animal."

In an analysis of the law, Steven Gellerstein, an attorney with Meislik and Meislik, wrote in a posting on the firm's website that landlords have to legally regain possession, either through a written notice from the tenant or following a court-ordered eviction.

If the possessions are left behind in a residence, the landlord has to give a notice that he or she intends to dispose of it, either through a public sale or by destroying or throwing it away.

Before the items are disposed of, residential tenants have to be able to retrieve their belongings without payment of the unpaid rent. If they say they want them back, then they have 15 days to act, but must pay back the landlord for moving and storage costs.

If, after all that, the possessions are sold, Gellerstein wrote, landlords have to give the tenants any money left over after deducting for rent, moving, storage and sale costs.

The landlord doesn't get to pocket what's left over, Gellerstein wrote. If the tenant can't be found, then the money is deposited with the state Supreme Court, and in a decade, the funds will belong to the state.

If the landlord does not comply fully with the statute, then the tenant is absolved of any responsibility for costs, and can sue for up to 200 percent of the value of the property.

While it is uncommon, landlords say it happens.

"You come across all kinds of situations," said Hollie Wilkes, a broker-salesperson with Prudential Fox & Roach in Northfield.

She has seen prescription medications, clothing and food left behind.

The medications were a surprise, she said. "You would have thought they would have needed these."

Contact Derek Harper:

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