The U.S. has experienced 18 weather and climate disasters with losses exceeding $1 billion each, as of October of this year. These events have included a drought, two floods, nine severe storms, four tropical cyclones, one wildfire and a winter storm, according to the NationalClimate Data Center.
Whether you’re a renter or a homeowner, preparation is key, says Jeffrey Hussey, the director of Public Interest & Litigation at Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida, a nonprofit law firm.
“Mistakes can be made if you are rushing or panicked,” he says. “If you are prepared and have a plan, you can lessen the impact a natural disaster has on you and your family.”
For renters dealing with the aftermath of a natural disaster, whether it is an apartment or a home that was damaged or destroyed, here are a few tips provided by the Community Legal Services of Mid-Florida to consider:
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Contact your landlord
As soon as it is safe, inspect your residence to figure out what damage has occurred and tell your landlord about the property damage to your residence. Your landlord can arrange for repairmen to come to the property. Ask your landlord to keep you informed of the plans and timeframe for the repairs.
The best way to notify your landlord is with a written request for repairs. In your request, ask how long it will take for repairs to be completed. Mail your written repair request using certified mail with a return receipt or a service that tracks delivery (UPS, FedEx, USPS mail). Keep the return receipt for your records.
Understand your lease
You should re-read your lease to understand the repairs that you and landlord are responsible for making on the residence. If you don’t have a copy of your lease, ask your landlord for one.
When a disaster occurs, the most important terms in your lease are the rent abatement or lease termination provisions. You have the right to terminate your lease if a significant part of the property is damaged or completely unusable. You also have the right to reduced rent until the property is completely repaired.
Rent abatement: This is a term in your lease that says in the event the property is damaged, the landlord will allow you (the tenant) to suspend paying rent or only pay a portion of the rent until the property is repaired.
Lease termination: A lease agreement doesn’t end just because there was a disaster. Either you or your landlord must act for the lease to formally terminate. Even if your building is non-livable, your landlord must still give you official notice that terminates the lease agreement. If you or the landlord choose to terminate the lease, you are entitled to a refund of rent paid from the date that you move out, and the return of your security deposit, minus any lawful deductions.
If you live in an apartment complex, your landlord might offer to let you relocate into another undamaged unit. If you decide to relocate to another unit, you are not required to sign a lease for a longer period than your original lease term. If you do not vacate (for example, you disagree that the property is uninhabitable), the landlord must go through a court process to evict you.
Getting your security deposit back
If you have a written lease, read your lease to see what it says about getting your security deposit back after you move out because of a disaster. If you do not have a written lease, or your lease does not say anything about this type of event, then the landlord must either return your deposit (the time frame may depend on the state) or send you a letter stating the reason why they will not return your deposit.
Before you leave your apartment, you must give your landlord your new address. If you and your landlord disagree about whether you should get your deposit back, you can call an attorney for assistance.
‘Uninhabitable’ rental property
A rental property that is completely unusable for residential purposes is considered “uninhabitable.” When your residence is uninhabitable, either you or your landlord may terminate the lease by giving written notice any time before repairs are completed.
Try to negotiate a suspension or reduction of rent, but unless your lease allows this or you live in public housing, you can only get reduced rent when the landlord fails to make repairs you properly requested, and then you sue your landlord.
If you terminate your lease, you are responsible only for prorated rent due up until the date you move. You will still owe any charges that accrued up to that point, including past-due rent.
Make a written and dated request for return of your security deposit with a forwarding address where it can be sent. You should know that if there is damage to the property not caused by the disaster and not caused by normal wear and tear, your landlord can withhold some or all of your deposit. If your security deposit is withheld, your landlord must provide a written, itemized accounting of the repairs cost.
Partially unusable rental property
A leased property is partially unusable for residential purposes if you can still live there while repairs are being made. If the leased property is only partially unusable, you are not simply entitled to terminate the lease, but you might be entitled to a partial rent reduction.
Your priority in this case would be to make sure that you have made a proper repair request to your landlord so that your landlord is obligated to fix your house/apartment. At that point, you may have rights to pursue the rent reduction that you are entitled to.
If the property was insured, your landlord does not have to start repairs until they receive the money from the insurance company.
If you live at the property, you must keep paying rent according to your lease. You can ask your landlord to reduce your rent because you are not getting full use of the property.
If your landlord agrees to a temporary rent reduction, get a written, signed agreement. If you can’t agree to a reduction and the lease doesn’t prohibit rent reductions, you can sue your landlord to get a court order for reduced rent.
Damaged or destroyed personal items
The landlord is not responsible for loss or damage to your personal belongings. Landlords are only responsible for the housing unit itself, not your possessions inside the unit – unless your lease says otherwise.
If you had renter’s insurance at the time of the disaster, contact your insurance company. If your area has received a major “disaster declaration,” you will be eligible for some FEMA services.
If your losses are not covered by any insurance policy, you may be able to get Individual and Household Program (IHP) money from FEMA to replace necessary items of personal property such as clothing, household items, furnishings and appliances. You may apply for these benefits through FEMA at 1-800-621-3362 (hearing/speech impaired 1-800-427-5593) or online at www.disasterassistance.gov.
Swapna Venugopal Ramaswamy is the housing and economy reporter for USA TODAY. Follow her on Twitter @SwapnaVenugopal