Fires have always been a risk in California, and recently we’re seeing that they can be even more damaging and devastating than we ever expected.
So, what happens when your Santa Rosa rental property is damaged in a fire? What can you do to protect yourself and your investment? How can you access resources?
What are you required to provide for your tenant?
We’re taking a look at all the questions that surround fires and rental properties.
House Fires vs. Wildfires in Santa Rosa Rental Properties
If we weren’t focused on California, you’d hear the words “fire” and “rental property” and assume that we’re talking about a basic kitchen fire or a home that was damaged when a candle was left burning and it tipped over to light the curtains ablaze.
In California, however, we’ve been battling a handful of unpredictable wildfires every year for many years. Rental properties in this state are at risk of fires that are due to general negligence and those that are deemed natural disasters.
For the purposes of our discussion, we’ll take a look at both kinds of fires and what they mean to your investment.
Let’s start with the easy one.
House and Apartment Fires
According to California state law, your tenants have a right and an expectation to live in a safe and habitable home. So, if the home you’re renting out is damaged by a fire that was caused by your tenant or someone else, it’s your responsibility as the landlord to repair the property as soon as possible and ensure it meets habitability standards.
There are some questions that will need to be answered as you decide how to pay for those repairs, however. For example, who was at fault for the fire? What kind of property was damaged? Are you required to move the tenant into a hotel or other lodgings while you make the repairs and return the home to a habitable condition?
- If the tenant was negligent and caused a fire, then you should not be expected to pay for damages to your property. You can hold the tenant accountable, or their insurance company. Make sure you can prove that the tenant caused the fire; you’ll likely need this in case you need to sue for damages.
- Your tenants are responsible for their own personal possessions when they rent a home. They’ll have to file a claim with their renter’s insurance policy in order to repair or replace items such as furniture, clothing, and electronics.
- Tenants can cancel the rental agreement if the property is uninhabitable after a fire.
Whether it’s a fire that begins due to a dangerous amount of lint collecting in the dryer or a grease fire in the kitchen, these types of events are usually easy to contain. Here’s what you and your tenant need to do.
- Landlord Responsibilities
When your rental property in Santa Rosa is damaged by a fire but not completely destroyed, then you can file a claim with your insurance company, and they are most likely going to cover the repairs. The insurance company will repair the structure of your property and cover the repairs or replacements of the things that belong to you (such as appliances). They are not, however, liable for a tenant’s personal property damage.
If the property is destroyed by a fire and the health department determines that the home is uninhabitable, then you should immediately terminate the lease. You cannot legally require the tenant to continue paying rent for a property that is now uninhabitable. This is against California law.
When you’re canceling the lease agreement and the tenant needs to find a new place to live, you aren’t responsible for their housing. But, if you’re moving the tenant out temporarily while repairs are made, you’ll need to pay for hotel costs or the cost to stay in a new place until the home is habitable again.
- Tenant Responsibilities
One of the reasons that we always recommend you require renter’s insurance for your tenant is that it will come in handy at a time like this. If there’s a fire, your tenant should have renter’s insurance to cover the repair or replacement of any personal items. If a tenant does not have insurance, then they will have to replace the items out of pocket.
What you don’t want is your uninsured tenant filing a lawsuit against you because they believe the fire was due to your negligence. Then, your tenant would be able to receive compensation from you or your insurance company.
If the tenant’s negligence caused the fire, not only will the tenants be financially responsible through their insurance company, but they’ll also need to handle their own expenses when moving out of the property or terminating the lease and finding another place to live.
California Wildfires and Santa Rosa Rental Homes
We have had enough recent rain in the region that we’re feeling pretty confident our wildfire season is over. But it’s hard to forget the damage that is done to property and to people. The wildfires in 2017 were especially damaging here, and it’s caused a lot of us to take a close look at our emergency plans and our systems for providing support to tenants and properties.
When you’re dealing with a wildfire or a natural disaster that damages your rental property, there may be state, local, and federal resources you can access to minimize the cost for you. There may be nonprofit organizations available to help your tenants access new housing as well as any basic supplies that they need. Recently, victims of California wildfires have worked with Red Cross, FEMA, and other government and private organizations to access assistance. Local providers also put together shared housing and resource exchange programs.
- Is your lease agreement up to date?
When your property is damaged in a wildfire, your tenants will be looking to you for answers on what to do and where to turn. Your job will be to work with vendors and contractors as well as emergency personnel to protect your property. The safety of your tenants, of course, is more important than your property. If there’s an evacuation order, make sure they are attentive to it.
Check your lease agreement. There should be an emergency plan included there, as well as instructions for what to do when it looks like they will be evacuated because of a wildfire.
- Habitability and temporary housing
California rental property owners and property managers are bound to the Implied Warranty of Habitability laws, which say a rental unit must be fit to live in. If your rental home is damaged by a fire, it’s not your fault, but it’s your responsibility to keep your tenants out of an unsafe home. You’ll need to work with your tenants to get them placed in some kind of temporary housing. In California, if a tenant has to temporarily relocate for required maintenance and repairs, that tenant does not have to pay rent to you during the time they are not able to live at the property being rented.
- Total loss
What if your Santa Rosa rental property isn’t only damaged, but it’s completely destroyed? The tenancy and the lease agreement will be terminated. At this point, you will not be required to cover the costs of your tenant’s temporary housing, and the tenant can stop paying rent.
Tenant Rights During Santa Rosa Rental Property Fires
When a tenant is living in a rental home or a rental apartment and fire damage occurs, there should be clear communication from the landlord or the property manager about the tenant’s rights and what they can expect next.
A tenant’s renter’s insurance policy will help with belongings. There are also resources available through the government and private nonprofits to help with housing and displacement.
Tenants will need to quickly find new housing when their rental homes are completely destroyed by fire. This can be difficult in the current market, which is commanding high rents, low vacancy rates, and a stressed inventory.
Putting Together an Emergency Plan
An emergency plan will assist you in feeling less helpless when fires occur at your Santa Rosa rental property. It’s impossible to be prepared for everything. But, when you can share a plan with your tenants, both of you can work together to ensure that the property is protected as much as possible, even when a fire occurs. It also ensures that everyone is kept safe.
Share your emergency plan when your tenants move in. Make sure there’s a fire extinguisher in the property as well as smoke alarms and other preventative measures. Pay attention to raging wildfires and heed any and all evacuation orders.
This can be a complex situation to navigate and an excellent time to rely on the expertise of Santa Rosa property managers. If you’d like some direction and advice, please contact us at Prestige Real Estate & Property Management. We manage homes in Sonoma County, including Santa Rosa, Windsor, Sebastopol, Petaluma, and Rohnert Park.