My tenant just moved out and left mountains of junk behind. I don’t think there’s anything of value, but do I really need to look through it all to make sure? If so, can I charge for my time to do so and take that and any additional refuse fees out of his security deposit?
Two specific laws govern your situation: the law on security deposits and the laws related to abandoned property.
The law governing security deposits is Civil Code §1950.5. It provides that security deposits may be used to compensate a landlord for a default in rent; to fund repairs of unit damage beyond reasonable wear and tear; to pay for the cleaning the unit to the same level of cleanliness it was in at the start of the tenancy; and lastly, to remedy any future defaults under the terms of the lease to restore, replace, or return personal property or appurtenances, exclusive of wear and tear. There is no provision for deductions related to your time to go through the tenant’s property to determine whether there is anything of value.
You are also required to follow Civil Code §1983 et. seq., which addresses a landlord’s obligations should a tenant leave behind abandoned property. You must give written notice to the former tenant (The SFAA has these forms available for sale). The notice must describe the items in a manner so that the owner of the property can identify it. The notice must advise that reasonable costs for storage may be charged before the property is returned, state where it may be claimed, and the date before which the claim must be made. The date specified in the notice must be a date not less than 15 days after the notice is personally delivered or, if mailed, not less than 18 days after the notice mailed.
After the waiting period, if you determined the value of the property to be less than $300, and the tenant does not make any effort to collect it, then you are free keep the items yourself or throw them away. If you throw them away, I would argue that you have a right to deduct those costs (i.e., costs for your time in hauling or getting a dumpster) from the security deposit, as it would fall under returning the unit to its original condition of cleanliness.
If however, the value of the abandoned property is more than $300, and no one has contacted you within the waiting period, you are obligated to hold a “public sale” of the items by competitive bidding, like an auction. Anyone can bid at the sale, including the former tenant or even the landlord. After the sale is held, you are allowed to deduct the costs of storage, advertising, and the sale from the proceeds of the sale. Any balance of the proceeds of the sale must be sent to the county treasurer. It could be maintained that the part of the costs of the sale include your time in determining the value of the property left behind. Thus, such deductions could possibly be made from any auction proceeds, but not from the security deposit.