After getting the keys to their new place, buyers might be surprised to stumble across items that the sellers left behind.
“Moving is a very stressful time for both purchasers and sellers,” says Karen Kostiw, an agent at Coldwell Banker Warburg. “New homeowners often find items accidentally left behind by the seller in a forgotten space like a cabinet up high or somewhere in a closet.”
But what happens when the seller leaves behind more than a few cardboard boxes and cleaning supplies? Having to deal with a refrigerator full of rotting food, a piano, or pricey sports equipment is not easy—especially when you’re in the process of moving your own stuff in.
You might be staring at piles of junk and wondering how the heck you’re supposed to contend with it all. Who owns all that stuff? Are you allowed to just get rid of it? And, what could you have done to avoid getting this mess in the first place?
Do a walk-through on the day of closing
The seller’s agent should work to ensure a seamless closing and prevent anything from being left behind by the seller. But the buyer has a role, too.
“On the day of the closing, be sure to complete a thorough walk-through of the home you are buying,” says Kimberly Jay, a broker at Compass.
Apart from checking that everything is in working order, such as appliances, windows, and so on, she recommends checking to make sure the sellers have removed all of their personal belongings.
“Open every kitchen cabinet, closet, bathroom vanity, and medicine cabinet. Head to the basement and attic, too, as a seller may have forgotten any stuff they were storing there,” says Jay.
Kostiw suggests choosing a move-out date to give the buyer enough time to inspect the property to ensure all contents have been removed.
Get everything in writing before closing
Experts recommend getting everything in writing to avoid having to deal with the seller’s abandoned items.
When consulting with their attorney, buyers should make sure their contract stipulates “that all personal items in and on the grounds of the property not included in the sale should be removed by a specific date,” says Kostiw.
The buyers can specify the items they want removed, and if they are not removed, then a certain amount will be held back from the sale to cover their removal.
Kostiw adds that the contract should also state that anything the sellers leave behind becomes the possession of the buyers, who can dispose of them as they like.
Hauling away items left behind by the seller can be costly. If details about removing the leftover items—including who will pay—are not in the closing documents, then the homeowner is responsible.
“Another option, although not ideal, is to postpone the closing. The buyer could refuse to close that day and request that the seller remove their stuff first,” says Becki Danchik, a broker at Coldwell Banker Warburg.
As the homeowner, you now own the abandoned items
As the new owner of the home, what’s on your property is now yours.
“Once the buyers have closed and the title company confirms the purchase, the buyers own the belongings,” says Judy Chin with Re/Max Villa Realtors, Edgewater, NJ.
If you have an issue with items being left behind, experts recommend that you consult with your legal counsel.
“Discuss state- and town-specific guidance regarding removing with your attorney,” says Kostiw. “Ask if there is guidance or a penalty provision laid out in the contract. The attorney can act as the go-between to derive a remedy for the left items.”
Buyers can toss or donate stuff left behind
As the owner of the property and its contents, the buyers can do what they want with the things left behind by the seller.
“Donate them, throw them away, sell them, or keep them—it’s up to you,” says Jay.
The cost for hauling away items starts at around $150 and can go upward of $1,000. The cost can vary based on location, size, labor, and distance to transport items.
“In New York City, removal companies often charge by the amount of space the stuff takes up in one truck,” says Danchik.
Also, your real estate agent can be a great resource and can maybe save you money. For example, Re/Max has a promo code for 1-800-Got-Junk?
“There are many charities and junk removal companies that may be of service to remove items left behind,” says Kostiw.
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