Personal property and landlord’s lien

Can the landlord take things that are mine?

In some circumstances the landlord can take the tenant’s property if it is written into the lease. Look for “landlord’s lien.”

What is a landlord’s lien?

A landlord’s lien is a lien for unpaid rent that attaches to a tenant’s nonexempt property in the residence or in a storage room. A landlord’s lien allows the landlord to take your personal property. A lien for unpaid rent is enforceable only if it’s written in the lease, and is underlined or printed in conspicuous bold print. There are certain kinds of property that the landlord can never take. Those are listed below.

The landlord’s lien gives the landlord the right to peacefully take the tenant’s property, and to sell it after a proper time period and notice in order to get unpaid rent. The landlord’s lien can be enforced by the landlord without taking any formal action in court ONLY if it is written out specifically in the lease, and the lease provision is underlined or printed in obvious bold print. The landlord cannot sell or dispose of the property unless this also is written in the lease. 

If you live in a property that was financed with Low Income Housing Tax Credits or is public housing or federally subsidized, your landlord CANNOT seize property under a landlord’s lien.

The law also allows a landlord to remove all the contents of an apartment or house when the tenant has abandoned the property (see Abandonment below for the definition). 

There is no specific limit on the amount of non-exempt property the landlord can take (see below for exempt property). The landlord cannot seize property for any purpose other than paying your rent.

Property that the landlord cannot take (exempt property)

The following types of property are exempt and cannot be taken by the landlord under any circumstance, unless the property was abandoned:

  • Clothing.
  • Tools, equipment, and books of the tenant’s trade.
  • School books.
  • One automobile and one truck.
  • Family portraits and pictures.
  • Family library.
  • One couch, two living room chairs, one dining table and chairs.
  • All beds and bedding.
  • All kitchen furniture and utensils, including a tenant’s deep freezer and microwave.
  • Food and food stuffs.
  • Medicine and medical supplies.
  • Anything the landlord knows belongs to someone else not living in the leased premises.
  • Anything the landlord knows was purchased on a recorded credit arrangement that has not yet been paid for.
  • All agricultural implements.
  • Children’s toys not used by adults.

Essentially, the landlord can never take property that you do not own, or property you need to live, learn, or work, or property that is very valuable to your family but not valuable to anyone else (like toys, pictures, medicine and medical supplies).

Procedure the landlord must use if they’re going to take your property

If the landlord wants to take tenant property because the tenant has not paid the rent, the landlord must follow the letter of the law:. 

  • The lease must allow the landlord to do this, and the provision must be in underlined or bold print. 
  • The tenant must be behind on rent (and not some other charges, such as utilities, late fees, or maintenance fee). 
  • The property taken must not be exempt. If the landlord makes a mistake, the tenant has a right to sue for return of the property and damages.

The landlord can enter the tenant’s place to take property only if it can be done “without a breach of the peace.” In other words, a tenant might resist a landlord trying to enter or might tell the landlord the tenant will not permit the landlord to take any property.  A landlord is not entitled to use any force or cause a disturbance.  The landlord should leave if the tenant objects. In nearly every case,  landlords will exercise a lien and seize property only when the tenant is not at home.

In addition, the landlord must leave a notice that they went inside the tenant’s place and specifically list every item it took. The notice must be left in an obvious place inside the tenant’s place. The notice must also say the amount of the delinquent rent and the name, address and telephone number of the person the tenant can contact. The notice must also state that the property will be returned when you pay the missing rent. If the lease gives the landlord the right to do so, the landlord can sell the things they take (see below).

Getting your stuff back

Paying the landlord the owed rent should get your property back (if the property was illegally taken you should send the landlord a demand letter requesting it return the property or be sued). A landlord can’t keep your property for any amount of money other than rent. To get back your property you need only pay the delinquent rent and, if authorized in a written lease, all reasonable packing, moving, storage, and sale costs.

The landlord can also sell the property if it is in the lease agreement.

(If not, the landlord can only store the property.) The landlord must give the tenant at least 30 days’ advance notice of the sale by certified and regular mail to the tenant’s last known mailing address, indicate the time, date, and place of the sale, and provide an itemized account of the rent owed and the name of the person to contact for information. The tenant is allowed to redeem the property prior to the sale if the tenant pays the rent owed, and the reasonable packing, moving and storage charges (if these charges are also specified in the lease). 

At the sale, the property is sold to the highest cash bidder. It is usually a good idea to go to the sale to make sure it is done the right way (sometimes landlords sell things to their friends for a few cents). The tenant is allowed to go to the sale and purchase his own property. The landlord must take the money he receives from the sale of the tenant’s property and apply it to the rental account. The tenant is entitled to any remainder. The landlord must give the tenant an accounting within 30 days of the tenant’s written request.

Penalties if the landlord breaks the law (wrongful seizure)

If the landlord willfully violates the law on liens, the tenant may recover actual damages, return of any property seized that has not been sold, return of any proceeds of any sale of seized property, and a civil penalty equal to the sum of one month’s rent and $1,000, minus any amounts for which the tenant is liable (e.g. unpaid rent, utilities, late fees, etc.). The tenant’s remedies are set forth in Section 54.046 of the Texas Property Code.

Abandonment

In some circumstances a landlord may consider a home abandoned. You should check your lease to see how your landlord defines abandonment. The courts will look at your lease for the legal definition. 

If you’ve abandoned the property, the landlord can legally enter, change the locks, and remove all personal belongings left behind.

Here are two scenarios that do not constitute an abandonment:

  1. If it’s clear that you plan to return to the property.
  2. If you’ve paid rent for the month (even if you don’t stay at the property). It is a good idea to let the landlord know (in writing) if you are not going to stay in the property for an extended period of time, but this is not required.

Sometimes a landlord might think you have abandoned when you’re moving out. It is best to move all at once if you can, rather than leaving things behind for days. If you need to come back for certain things, you should let your landlord know that you intend to remove the rest of the items and when you intend to do so. 

If the landlord took your things and you did not abandon them, you should immediately notify the landlord in person and in writing requesting the return of your property.