kypwtYOU’VE SAT AT THE SAME DESK FOR five years. You’ve worked at the same PC day in and day out for the last three. Even the filing cabinet and phone are familiar fixtures in your home office. The trouble is, they’re not yours–the company paid for them when you started teleworking.

“When I left my last job, I was very concerned about making sure I wasn’t blamed for not bringing everything back,” says Salt Lake City-based consultant Amy Neuberger. “I made a detailed list with the secretary and had her mark off everything that I returned. I didn’t want there to be any misunderstanding. I even returned leftover paper clips!”

While few companies insist on getting back unused boxes of staples, desks and computers are another matter. And considering the sizable investment that such equipment represents, you’d expect employers to carefully manage their telework inventory. But that’s not always the case.

“Many companies have pretty informal teleworking programs,” says Martha Buxton, director of marketing at TeleCommute Solutions, an Atlanta-based company specializing in remote workforce management. “They often don’t have telecommuting agreements or track equipment.”

That’s exactly the experience of Robin Hohman, a reporter who recently left her Framingham, Mass-based employer. The company initially provided a computer, desk, chair, telephone, and supplies. But at the end of her tenure, problems surfaced. “We had no telework agreement at all,” she says. “No one kept records of what equipment belonged to whom, or what the disposition would be when I left.”

Hohman found herself poring over equipment records, and tried bargaining with the company for possession. What can you do to ensure that your equipment and furniture goes where you’d like it to? Consider these tips:

Keep Good Records
There’s nothing more important than making sure you and your company agree on who owns what. “Because we [worked] off of old expense sheets,” says Hohman, “I wound up returning things that the company didn’t even really want.” It can be a real nightmare trying to determine who owns what when you’re in the throes of changing jobs and possibly even moving. “They might hold up your last paycheck if they think you haven’t returned everything,” she adds.

Be a Hero
Many telecommuting programs fail because the terms of the agreement were never spelled out, says TeleCommute Solutions’ Buxton. If you can persuade your boss to put the details in writing, you’re not only protecting yourself but helping the company’s telework program to succeed. You’ll have a clearly defined exit strategy, and be a hero, to boot.

Don’t Settle for an Allowance
Some teleworkers push for an equipment allowance to outfit their home office. On the surface, it’s a good deal for everyone–you get some cash and the company may be able to bargain a lower starting salary in return. But this path is fraught with pitfalls: The allowance is taxable income, reducing your actual buying power, throwing your entire office into a gray zone–what percentage of the desk was paid for with the allowance? Who really owns it? It’s better to order the equipment with a company credit card, or even expense it.

Don’t Assume Anything
Establish from the outset exactly what equipment the company will provide and what you’ll need to supply on your own. This should be detailed in your telecommuting agreement. Also include any options for upgrading to new equipment, and what happens to the equipment if you leave the firm. “Few companies think that far out,” Buxton says.

Hohman agrees: “Don’t assume that just because your old boss paid for the desk, your new company will do the same. I found out the hard way, and it cost me a lot of money to establish a new home office.” Also, firm up details with your boss regarding who pays for the cost of delivering and assembling equipment.

Discuss Buyback Options
Quite often, the equipment that your company gave you three years ago is more trouble than it’s worth to return. “Since the company has already depreciated your equipment and it’ll cost a small fortune to ship, don’t be afraid to make [your company] an attractive offer to just keep the stuff,” says Stan Fitzgerald, a telework project manager for Boca Raton, Fla.-based Siemens Information and Communication Networks Inc. who regularly manages hundreds of teleworkers. “Often a company would rather get some cash for an old desk than lose money getting it back,” he says.

Don’t Pack it Yourself
When it’s time to say goodbye, let the employer come pick up the equipment. If the firm sends a moving company to retrieve it, this frees you from liability for any damage, and will save you some back-breaking labor in the bargain.