Be Prepared for Earthquakes and Natural Disasters: Tenants & Landlords

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I recently attended the Emergency Expo which was a part of the Home & Garden Show here in Santa Clarita.  The Department of Building and Safety was in attendance.  I asked them what would happen during a disaster if homes were damaged.

They assured me that the city has a mobilization plan to inspect homes.  Moreover, if the disaster was very large scale they have agreements with inspectors from other communities to come in and assist.

Of course, they reminded me that each landlord might also need to supply their own structural or geotechnical engineer depending upon the nature of the disaster.  But this might also be covered under an insurance policy.

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All this disaster talk, along with the spate of small earthquakes we have had recently, got me to thinking about what would happen with your rental property in the event of an earthquake, or any other major disaster such as a fire or flood.

Tenants and landlords should be aware of their legal rights and obligations in times of disaster.  The following information is provided by the California Association of Realtors.

Must a tenant continue to pay rent if the premises have been declared unsafe by a county or city building inspector?
No. The rental relationship no longer exists when the premises have been rendered uninhabitable. Landlords must refund any portion of the rent that was unused, as well as any applicable security deposits. (Cal. Civ. Code §§ 1933, 1935.)

When must a landlord return the tenant’s security deposit?
Landlords must return any applicable security deposit to the tenant within three weeks after the tenant vacates the premises, along with a written accounting of any deposit retained. (Cal. Civ. Code § 1950.5(g).)  Furthermore, a landlord cannot deduct earthquake damage from the tenant’s deposit.

Must a landlord reimburse the tenant for any of the tenant’s damaged or destroyed personal property?
Generally, no.  The landlord is not responsible for personal property damaged by the earthquake (or other natural disaster) unless the tenant can prove the landlord’s negligent maintenance of the building caused the damage. (Source: Miller & Starr, 7 California Real Estate §19:133.)

May a tenant terminate the lease if the building or unit has been damaged?
If the building or unit is now uninhabitable, the lease is automatically terminated (Cal. Civ. Code § 1933(4)). If the building or unit is habitable but has sustained some damage, the landlord has the right to make repairs in a reasonable period of time and the tenant will be bound to the rental agreement.

Must a landlord repair damage caused by the earthquake?
A landlord has a duty to put the building into a condition reasonably suited for occupation and to repair all dilapidations that render it untenantable.  For example: heat, gas, electric and plumbing must be in working order, hot and cold water and sewer and garbage facilities must be available and the landlord must maintain the general cleanliness, safety, waterproofing and weather protection of the premises.

Required repairs must be made in a “reasonable” period of time. Obviously, this may be difficult to determine in light of the earthquake or other major disaster.  ( See Cal. Civ. Code §§ 1941, 1941.1.)  However, landlords may experience delays in getting “repair people” to respond and repair the damage due to the heavy demand.  Therefore, a “reasonable time” may be longer than normal, and a little flexibility is probably warranted.

May a tenant occupy the property if the local Building and Safety Department has “tagged” the property?
In Los Angeles, property with a green tag may be occupied, even though it may have some damage.  Yellow tagged property allows tenants limited access or denotes partial destruction, e.g., a broken chimney.  This tag should be read carefully to see if occupancy is allowed. A red tag on the property means that no entry is allowed.