Picture the scenario: you’ve spent all your money buying your new home. It’s rather grotty really, but it’s the best you can afford – the wiring and plumbing are horribly in need of an update and the whole place needs bringing into the new century. Maybe you’ll be able to tackle the urgent jobs with a loan from the family, but the new decor might have to wait ten years.
Several weeks in, and you’re worried that the regular pitter patter of footsteps you hear above your bedroom ceiling each night, as you lie in the dark, might actually be rats and you know you need to think about inspecting the damage. Better go and see what’s up in the attic.
So, deciding to be very brave, you risk life and limb by entering the roof space, when behold! You find it isn’t your attic at all, but Aladdin’s Cave – stacked full of treasures left behind by the unlucky heirs of the previous owner who, in their haste to deal with the estate of the deceased loved one, has failed to spot the family silver.
The big question is: can you keep it? And can you sell it to pay for a pest controller and a builder?
When you buy new property the four walls and roof, and obvious fixtures and fittings, are covered by the Law Society’s property sellers’ information form which is part of the sales contract. However, the form does not ask about the forgotten Rembrandts or silver candle sticks left behind by granny but which an executor knew nothing about.
Unless stated otherwise, ‘chattels’ (or moveable items) do not usually form part of the sales contract, so should be returned to the vendor. However, this presupposes that the vendor knew about the chattels, and did not accidentally inherit them from a previous owner, as you did. As the item was left behind by the previous owner, it is generally assumed that your discovery will not cause him any loss of sleep if you fail to mention it to him.
In England and Wales, this is not true of precious finds that are older than 200 years, which could be considered ‘treasure trove’ under the Treasure Act 1996. Finds such as these must be reported to the district coroner and may be claimed by the State – although you are likely to be compensated for their value. By law, all treasure finds must be reported to the coroner within 14 days except where treasure finds occurred before 24 September 1997 when the find is dealt with under common law “Treasure Trove”. Such cases are extremely rare and the vast majority of cases fall under the Treasure Act 1996.
The moral of this story is to check your home before you leave it to make sure you don’t leave valuable possessions behind.