If your apartment building has been affected by a devastating natural disaster, the last thing you want to do is deal with paperwork and repairs. The good news is that, since you’re a tenant, these stressful responsibilities probably rest with your landlord. The bad news is that you’re at your landlord’s mercy regarding when repairs will be finished, and you’ll be affected by any mistakes made in the reconstruction process. What do you need to do after a disaster, and what kind of assistance can you obtain? Here’s a quick list of important deeds to be done after a natural disaster:
Notify Your Landlord
1. Notify your landlord of the damages to your apartment. He or she is probably already aware of the natural disaster situation (if the damage was truly the result of a natural disaster, not a flood caused by your failure to turn off the faucet…), but should be told about the specific damages to your living space nonetheless. Having a record of the damages to your apartment will be helpful to both you and your landlord in obtaining repair work and insurance coverage.
Check Your Lease
2. Check your lease to determine whether you or your landlord should be responsible for making repairs to the damaged apartment. In almost all cases, the landlord or property owner is responsible for making repairs, which should be covered under the landlord’s insurance. The repairs should be completed within a reasonable amount of time, which may vary after a natural disaster when repair services are in high demand in the area.
NOTE: If your landlord fails to make repairs in a reasonable time, you may be entitled to move out, as the uninhabitability of your apartment constitutes your landlord’s breaking of the lease terms. Your local health department may be able to certify your apartment as unsafe to live in, strengthening your case if you decide to leave the apartment and stop paying rent. If you move out and cease paying rent while repairs are being made, notify your landlord of your temporary address if you plan to return when the apartment has been fixed. If you want to cancel your lease agreement because you believe your apartment is uninhabitable, consult a lawyer to make sure your situation meets the conditions for canceling a long-term lease. Be aware that landlord is not responsible for funding alternative housing if the apartment is uninhabitable.
Contact Your Insurance Company
3. If you have renter’s insurance, immediately contact your insurance company to provide proof of damages. Your landlord’s insurance should pay to fix your apartment, but it won’t cover damages to your personal property. One experience with property damaged by a natural disaster but not covered by renter’s insurance will probably motivate you to take out a policy. Depending on the nature of your renter’s insurance policy, you may be able to get funds for the additional living expenses incurred if you need to stay elsewhere while repairs are being made.
NOTE: Many insurance policies cover only certain natural disasters that are considered unavoidable “Acts of God.” Floods, earthquakes, and other disasters, though devastating, often require separate policies. Be sure you know what types of damages are covered under your renter’s insurance policy, and carefully weigh the benefits of taking out a separate policy in case of other disasters.
Check Your Status
4. If you’ve been affected by a natural disaster, you may be eligible for damage assistance or payments from the federal government. Contact the Federal Emergency Management Association to find out how they can help you. Even if you have renter’s insurance and are receiving payments from your insurance company, you may still be able to receive some assistance. If your apartment was damaged by a disaster not covered under your insurance policy, or you’re uninsured, this may be an especially necessary option for you to explore.
Try to Repair Minor Things
5. If your apartment can be made livable with some temporary repairs, you may be able to contract out these repairs yourself (rather than waiting for whatever company your landlord has hired to fix the apartment complex) and be reimbursed later. Be sure to remain in communication with your landlord about any repairs you make. Keep careful photographic records of the conditions of your apartment before and after the repairs, and make sure to retain proof of any payments you make to the repair crews you’ve hired.
NOTE: Be very wary of seemingly attractive insurance or repair options that immediately follow a disaster. Sad as it seems, some companies will take advantage of desperate and confused natural disaster victims by providing shoddy service, charging exorbitant amounts of money for repairs, or even demanding payment in advance and never completing repairs. Making repair agreements with these organizations without contacting your (or your landlord’s) insurance company may also make you ineligible for insurance payments. It may seem tempting to get the damage fixed immediately, but make sure you hire only trustworthy companies approved by the insurance provider who’ll be footing the bill, and get a written contract to guarantee you’ll receive the services for which you’re paying.
6. If the damage to your apartment is extensive and can’t be addressed by simple repairs, you’ll probably need to live elsewhere for a while. Your landlord is usually allowed to take a “reasonable” amount of time to restore the housing to livable conditions. Since repair crews, including construction workers, plumbers, and electricians, are often in high demand following a natural disaster, the repair process may take some time. As noted, your landlord is not responsible for paying your living expenses while the apartment is uninhabitable. However, if you have renter’s insurance, it may cover these additional living expenses. Again, be sure that the natural disaster in question is specifically covered under your policy.
A natural disaster is a stressful situation, but it’s important to keep a clear head when dealing with its aftermath. Clearly communicate with your landlord and insurance company regarding damages and repairs, know your rights when it comes to moving out or breaking your lease, and avoid getting into sticky situations by hiring disreputable contractors to fix your apartment. Play it safe and you’ll make it through, with your living environment temporarily affected but not altered forever by the disaster.