What can I do if the home I am renting is damaged in a natural disaster?
In a natural disaster, you may have to act quickly to make sure that you and your family are safe. Even if your landlord makes every effort to fix your home, it may be that it takes quite some time to make the needed repairs or, in the worst case, rebuild the home. The problem for you as a tenant is that you still need somewhere to live.
South Carolina law says that you have a couple of options if the home you are renting is damaged or destroyed by a natural disaster and normal use and occupancy of the home is “substantially impaired”. Unfortunately, there’s no checklist of things that would or would not substantially impair normal use and occupancy. You will have to use your best judgment or, ideally, speak with an attorney for guidance if that is possible. If you decide that normal use and occupancy is substantially impaired, your options are:
- You can immediately move out and terminate your lease. If you decide to do this, you should notify your landlord in writing that you intend to terminate the lease and explain why. As long as you notify your landlord in writing within seven days after you move out, your lease will terminate effective the day you moved out. You should keep a copy of the letter for your records and, ideally, send it by certified mail so that you have evidence of when it was sent and when it was received. Sending notice by e-mail or text message may or may not be effective and you should rely on that only if there is no way to get a letter to your landlord.
If you do terminate your lease, your landlord should return your security deposit. Also, if you have already paid rent for the month, your landlord should return a portion of that rent to you for the time that you were unable to live in the home. Your landlord has 30 days from the time you move out to return your deposit and prepaid rent. Your letter should list a forwarding address so that your landlord knows where to send your security deposit. If your landlord makes any deductions from your deposit – e.g., for unpaid rent or damage you caused – then they should send you an itemized list of those deductions along with the remainder of your deposit, if there is any. Your landlord should not deduct the cost of repairing damage from the disaster unless somehow you caused it or allowed it to happen.
You can use this termination confirm form to notify your landlord that you are terminating your lease.
- You can continue to live in the home. This is true only of it is legal to do this. If the home has been condemned or has been deemed unsafe it may not be legal for you to continue living there. If part of the home is unusable but the rest is ok, then you can move out of the part that is damaged and continue to use the rest. If you do this, then your rent should be reduced because you cannot use the entire home you were paying for.
You should try to negotiate this reduction with your landlord, but you may want to speak with an attorney if you cannot come to an agreement. You should make sure to document the condition of the home by taking pictures or video. If you continue to live in the home, it may be in need of some repairs. Your landlord is required to make “essential services” available and make sure that the home is in a “fit and habitable” condition. While a tenant is allowed in some cases to get an essential service if the landlord is not making it available and deduct the cost from rent, we recommend that you talk to an attorney before doing this to make sure that it is actually an essential service and to be sure that you properly notify your landlord before you do this.
If the repairs that are needed don’t involve an essential service, but the problems are still serious, you can click this link about getting your landlords to make repairs for more information on how to do this. If your landlord won’t make repairs, there are a couple of things that you should not do without talking to an attorney first:
- You should not stop paying rent;
- You should not make the repairs yourself and deduct the cost from rent.
The information above is the general rule, but your case may be an exception. It’s always best to speak with an attorney about problems like this, if possible. If you do not have an attorney, you can contact the South Carolina Bar Lawyer Referral Service at (800) 868-2284. If you cannot afford an attorney, you can contact South Carolina Legal Services to see if you qualify for free legal help at (888) 346-5592.