What do renters need to know in a natural disaster?

Real estate, Money

From hurricanes in the East to wildfires in the West, the past few months have seen an on-going slew of natural disasters in the United States. Fires and floods don’t care whether a property is inhabited by owners or renters. However, most states have laws that  address how landlords and tenants deal with a rental property in the aftermath of a natural disaster.

Renters’ recourse in a natural disaster? Leases and local laws.

Check the lease first

The first source of authority on the obligations of landlords and tenants is found in the lease agreement, which should spell out the terms of what happens in case of a natural disaster. But not all leases clearly address this situation. According to Michael Simkin, managing partner of Simkin & Associates in Los Angeles, in cases where the lease is “burdensome or unfair,” local or state laws will govern what happens.

Landlord and tenant responsibilities vary by state

Every state has different laws regarding landlord and tenant obligations after a natural disaster strikes. Here are examples of answers to common tenant questions from some of the states recovering from recent natural disasters.

Can a lease be terminated if a natural disaster makes a rental property unusable?

California: If a rental property is destroyed in a natural disaster, the lease is automatically cancelled. The landlord must refund the rent for that rental period on a prorated basis.

“Many times, the city can come in and condemn the property and effectively force out tenants in unsafe situations. It is also the landlord’s responsibility to terminate a lease when they have knowledge that their rental property is unusable or unsafe,” notes Monrae English, a partner at Wild, Carter & Tipton in Fresno.

Florida: If the premises are “damaged or destroyed,” the tenant may terminate the rental agreement with written notice and move out immediately.

Louisiana: According to the Louisiana attorney general, if a natural disaster damages a property to the point that it is completely unusable, the lease is terminated automatically.

New York: If a rental becomes unfit for occupancy due to a natural disaster, the tenant may quit the premises and is no longer liable to pay rent. Any rent paid in advance should be returned on a prorated basis, according to David Reiss, law professor at Brooklyn Law School.

Texas: Either the tenant or the landlord can terminate the lease with written notice. Once the lease is canceled, tenants’ obligation to pay rent ceases and they’re entitled to a prorated refund of any rent paid during the time the home was not usable.

If the lease is terminated due to a natural disaster, does the renter get the security deposit back?

California: The landlord must return the security deposit within three weeks of the tenant vacating, with any deductions accounted for in writing. The landlord is not allowed to deduct disaster damage.

Louisiana: The landlord is required to return security deposits within one month, as long as the tenant fulfilled the lease obligations and left a forwarding address, according to Brent Cueria, an attorney with Cueria Law Firm, LLC in New Orleans. The landlord cannot deduct for natural disaster damage.

New York: The security deposit must be returned to the tenant, according to Reiss.

Texas: The security deposit must be refunded.

How does the law define unusable or uninhabitable?

California: Habitable is defined as “fit to live in,” meaning that the dwelling meets certain conditions, including plumbing, heat, electricity, and gas systems “in good working order.”

Florida: Florida offers an extensive definition of habitability, which includes meeting the “requirements of applicable building, housing, and health codes” and “functioning facilities for heat during winter, running water, and hot water.”

Louisiana: A building is uninhabitable when a “defective condition” makes it unfit for its “intended use” or when there is a threat to health and safety, according to Cueria.

New York: Tenants have the right to livable, safe, and sanitary rental housing with electricity, heat, and hot water, including in common areas of a building. It’s the landlord’s legal obligation to provide these conditions for tenants under the “warrant of habitability.” Some courts have held landlords responsible for breaching this responsibility, even if the cause was outside of their control, such as a natural disaster.

Texas: Texas law defines a habitable dwelling as one that has heat, water, and generally safe conditions.

Can renters pay reduced rent if the rental is partially damaged?

California: If the rental is partially damaged but habitable, the renter is bound to the original lease. However, a tenant can often negotiate a rent reduction with the landlord, and if the landlord is “absent” or does not make repairs in a “reasonable” amount of time, the tenant has the right to withhold a reasonable amount of rent until the landlord corrects the situation, according to English.

Florida: In Florida, a renter has the right to reduce rent in proportion to the damage to the property. So, for example, if one bedroom in a unit is damaged but another is habitable, the rent could be reduced to the price of a one-bedroom unit.

Louisiana: A tenant may be entitled to a reduction in rent until the landlord can make repairs.

New York: Tenants may receive a reduction in rent if a rental is partially damaged, or if services such as electricity and heat are not provided. If a tenant temporarily—until repairs can be made— moves out of the rental after a natural disaster, the tenant does not have to pay rent while the rental is uninhabitable.

Texas: Tenants whose rentals are only partially usable after a natural disaster can seek a rent reduction in court proportionate to the amount of damage to the rentals. Landlords may wait until they receive funds from insurance claims to begin repairs, and it’s up to the landlord to determine whether the dwelling is totally or partially unusable.

Renters should plan ahead

It all starts with the lease. Renters should take the time to understand the terms of their leases, as well as the local laws regarding natural disasters, before disaster strikes. Renters who live in areas prone to natural disasters should plan ahead as much as they can. Landlords are generally not legally responsible for preparing a rental property for a natural disaster (for example, boarding up windows prior to a hurricane), so renters need to take measures to keep themselves safe.

However, in some states, such as California, if the tenant can prove that the landlord’s negligent maintenance of the building caused the damage, the tenant may be able to get some reimbursement from the landlord for destruction of personal property in a natural disaster.

Renter’s insurance is highly recommended

Tenants can also protect themselves with renter’s insurance. “The biggest thing for renters is insurance because the landlord is not responsible for damaged [personal] property. And renter’s insurance is inexpensive,” says Simkin.

Renters should read their insurance policies carefully; in disaster-prone areas, damage caused by floods, for example, may not be covered or may cost extra. Renters should also check to see if their policies will cover accommodations if they must evacuate their rental or are unable to return to it.

If a natural disaster-related dispute with a landlord does arise, tenants should talk to a lawyer, says Steven Barshov, principal of New York-based Sive, Paget & Riesel. “This is a technical enough area of the law that I would strongly advise that tenants seek counsel.”