How to Deal With Abandoned Storage Units

Krista Diamond |

There’s an unlocked, unpaid for storage unit at your facility. It’s frustrating enough that your tenant hasn’t paid rent on his storage unit in months, but the fact that it’s still full of his stuff presents an even bigger problem. Is your tenant delinquent on rent or did he intentionally abandon his storage unit?

Dealing with abandoned storage units is a lot like dealing with storage units that are headed for auction. In both cases, your ultimate goal is to free up the unit so that it can start generating revenue again. Unfortunately, navigating the legality of the situation can prolong that process—but it doesn’t have to. The next time you find an abandoned storage unit at your facility, consider the following.

Don’t Be Hasty

If you are too quick to declare a storage unit abandoned, you can face backlash. An unlocked door or a storage unit filled with trash might seem abandoned, but what if the tenant simply left the door unlocked by accident? What if the tenant is actually in the process of moving out and hasn’t finished?

Get the facts before overlocking a storage unit. Don’t assume anything and don’t take any actions. Wrongfully declaring a storage unit abandoned could land you in court. This process is about avoiding that.

Be Careful with Commercial Tenants

The contents of an abandoned storage unit may appear to be fit for a dumpster, but don’t throw them out quite yet. You could be dealing with some important, unseen documents. This is especially true when dealing with abandoned storage units from commercial tenants. These tenants are often storing third party documents, like a doctor’s medical files on patients. You should not auction off storage units with third party documents inside or throw these documents away.

When it comes to commercial tenants, it’s in your best interest to pay to have these records shredded. You can then add that charge to the collections request. If you encounter important documents in an abandoned storage unit from a non-commercial tenant, you can choose to keep them in a secure place or have them shredded.

Treat It Like Any Unpaid Unit

Contact the renter of an abandoned storage unit in the same way you would a tenant who is months late on rent. Follow your state’s lien laws and make attempts to contact the tenant in writing and by phone. Document your attempts at contact—in fact, document everything you do with this storage unit. Whether you’re overlocking the storage unit, opening it or trying to contact the tenant, document your activities in writing, with photographs or even on video.

If You Contact the Tenant

Making actual contact with the renter of an abandoned storage unit can be a struggle, so if you’ve managed to do it, give yourself a pat on the back. And then give that tenant an abandonment form. An abandonment form, if you’re unfamiliar with the term, is an official legal document that states that the tenant has abandoned their storage unit. The form should state that the tenant releases the contents to you for your disposal. If you do not have one of these, discuss it with a legal professional. Do not settle for a tenant telling you over the phone that you can do whatever you want with the abandoned storage unit. Putting your faith in a verbal contract leaves room for the tenant to change their mind. Once again, this lands you in court.

Auction Over Disposal

Opt for a self storage auction over throwing out the contents of the unit. Self storage auctions exist to help you recoup your loss, but even if you don’t recoup your loss (and it’s likely that you won’t in this scenario), following proper lien law procedures is crucial. Should the former tenant of the abandoned storage unit challenge you in court, showing a judge that you did everything right will dispel accusations of theft or improper disposal on your part.

You must always think of how things will look to the tenant and how your behavior will look in the eyes of a judge. Holding an auction for an abandoned storage unit might feel like a waste of time, but it will be much easier than paying attorney fees and taking time out of you schedule to appear in court.

Disposing of the contents of a storage unit might be tempting, but doing so could leave you vulnerable legally and could damage your reputation and your facility’s reputation.

Know Your Rights

As daunting as the prospect of dealing with an abandoned storage unit might seem, you do have rights. Here are two major things to be aware of:

  1. If a tenant claims that you stole or threw away something that they never should have been storing in the first place (weapons, ammunition, gold bars), this may give you leverage in court. Always go back to the contract that your tenant signed when renting the storage unit to see if he or she is breaking that agreement in any way.

  2. The Federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (aka HIPAA) requires the owners of medical documents to safeguard them. Remember that hypothetical doctor’s abandoned storage unit filled with medical records? In this case, HIPAA would require the tenant to keep those documents safe, not the storage facility.

Still have questions? Be sure to look at your state’s lien laws and don’t hesitate to contact a lawyer for help. Abandoned storage units can be complex, so don’t be afraid to rely on outside resources to simplify the problem. Doing so will help you clear out that storage unit, rent it out and get back to business as usual.