According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, natural disasters cause billions of dollars of damage each year in the United States. The net worth of damage costs for 2017 and 2018 was almost $400 billion, with hurricane damage being the costliest. Whether you have been directly impacted, or you know someone who has, you are familiar with how devastating the financial and emotional toll can be.
Although Mother Nature can wreak havoc, there are some steps individuals can take to be better prepared to limit damage and to ensure a quicker recovery in the aftermath of a natural disaster. Landlords, in particular, should take the time to work with their tenants to ensure their property is safeguarded, the tenants and their properties are protected, and that there is clarity around the appropriate course of action for tenants.
The best way to protect yourself and your property from any disaster is to get educated and appropriately prepared. March is both Severe Weather Preparedness month and American Red Cross month, making it the perfect time to take the appropriate steps to protect yourself, your family, and your property.
Types of Natural Disasters
Hurricanes and tornadoes dominate the headlines when it comes to natural disasters in the U.S., but depending on where you live, you could be impacted by a variety of other adverse events. Natural disasters can be classified as meteorological (weather-related); geological (from the earth); and hydrological (water-related).
Meteorological: Events that are wide-reaching with tornadoes, droughts, blizzards, and wildfires and have the potential to impact significant populations in the U.S. Blizzards can hit the Northeast, Northwest, and many areas in between. Nearly 20 states make up Tornado Alley where tornadoes are a frequent occurrence. Wildfires can be severe in the dry, drought-stricken areas of the West, as well as in heavily forested regions throughout the U.S.
Geological: Includes earthquakes, landslides, sinkholes, and volcanic eruptions. These types of events are more common in the Western United States. Volcanic eruptions typically occur in Alaska, Hawaii, and the Pacific Northwest; whereas, earthquakes are most common along the West Coast. Sinkholes, however, tend to be more frequent in Florida.
Hydrological: Events such as hurricanes, tsunamis, and floods, not surprisingly, most often affect residents along river banks and coastlines. Inland flooding from hurricanes and other significant rain events affect nearly all regions in the U.S.
Regardless of the type of disaster, the American Red Cross is often the first relief group on-site, helping to provide care and shelter. They are also one of the leading authorities for helping others prepare for emergencies and suggest the following:
Prepare a survival kit with water, non-perishable food, and a flashlight.
Make an effective emergency plan for your family that includes individual responsibilities and a communication plan.
Stay informed through local news and weather alerts.
Proactive landlords should be knowledgeable of the potential and type of natural disasters that could occur in their region. In addition to having their own survival kits, landlords need to be aware of their responsibilities in relation to their property and their tenants’ safety. They should ensure critical documents related to their housing are stored safely online or offsite, and that they have an outside contact who can access the information if needed.
Landlords who make sure their tenants are prepared with an emergency kit and a plan are better poised to support their tenants and authorities in emergencies.
How to Prepare for Any Type of Natural Disaster as a Landlord
There are some general proactive measures, both landlords and tenants should take well before a natural disaster strikes. Following these best practices will help protect your business and the renter.
Have a Lease with Natural Disaster Clauses: First, landlords should create a personalized lease online that includes clauses that clarify the course of action for tenants before and after natural disasters. By planning for and discussing potential issues down the road, the landlord-tenant relationship can become a stronger, lasting partnership.
Ensure Strict Safety Guidelines Are Followed: Landlords should keep well-maintained properties and have appropriate protection mechanisms in place, such as smoke detectors, carbon monoxide detectors, and fire extinguishers. When property upkeep is managed properly, disaster preparation is easier.
Require Renters Insurance: As one of the requirements of the lease, landlords can require renters to purchase and maintain an insurance policy. The tenants’ policy may cover their property, personal injury, and relocation support in the case of housing damage.
Encourage Tenants to Create an Emergency Plan & Kit: Landlords can work with tenants to take specific steps to protect against issues including breakage and loss of property, break-ins, and theft, as well as fires and natural disasters. Including a simple checklist with the lease agreement can go a long way. Here are sample tips to include for tenants:
Catalog their property by taking photographs and identifying replacement costs.
Keep valuables and important papers in a fireproof home safe.
Follow evacuation orders.
Sign up for the community’s emergency warning system.
Identify your closest evacuation routes.
Work as a Team:
Presented below are some examples of disaster preparations landlords and their tenants can work on together.
Locate gas connections and understand shut-off steps.
Assess structural integrity of the property’s foundation and repair issues, such as wall cracks, immediately.
Secure large objects in the house, on the decks, and outside.
Trim any damaged trees/branches close to the dwelling.
Make sure gutters are clear of debris and secure to the building, siding is secure, and storm shutters are tightly closed.
Tightly anchor heavy outdoor items, like propane tanks.
Bring any lightweight outdoor objects, such as furniture and trash cans, inside.
Cover outside windows.
Create a safe room (i.e. underground rooms or interior rooms on the first floor) that is anchored and can withstand high winds.
Bring any lightweight outdoor objects, such as furniture and trash cans, inside.
Secure large objects and appliances.
Make sure the property has a 100-foot “defensible space” (buffer) surrounding the property that is, free of landscaping with trees, shrubs, etc.
Locate and understand how to use the fire extinguisher.
Determine whether the property is built with fire-resistant building materials and, if not, treat it with fire-resistant chemicals.
Designate a room that can be closed off from outside air.
For a full list of how to prepare for any natural or manmade disaster, see Ready.gov, the website for the US Department of Homeland Security.
Gather Important Details from Tenant Before Disaster:
When an emergency situation is approaching, landlords should gather and exchange the following information with their tenants:
In the case of evacuation, get the tenant’s destination and alternate contact.
For each unit, get a complete list of all inhabitants, including pets, and whether they will be staying or leaving.
Get approval from the tenants to allow you to enter the premises if needed to assess the property before they return to the area.
Let the tenants know where you will be and how to reach you during an evacuation.
Give tenants your backup contact information.
How Landlords Should Handle Post-Disaster Recovery
Hopefully, the weather forecasts were wrong, and the damage from the event was not as bad as predicted. Unfortunately, that does not always happen. Landlords can speed-up recovery by knowing what to do when their property has suffered damage from a natural disaster. Tenants will turn to landlords for support and information, so now is the time to follow the disaster preparedness plan that you put in place.
Once the immediate danger has passed, and before attempting to return to your property, get informed. Follow the local news broadcasts and only return to your property when the authorities have declared it safe.
Assess Damage to Property
Assess outside damage and inspect the property carefully before entering the building. Check for structural damage and hazards, including roof, foundation, and chimney cracks; downed trees; downed or loose power lines; gas leaks; and any other potentially dangerous conditions. If there is any standing water inside, and/or pipes are damaged, turn off the electricity and the main water supply. Take pictures of everything – these will be needed for the insurance companies and contractors.
Assuming the structure is sound, and the property ishabitable, allow the tenants inside and have them evaluate the condition of the interior and their personal property.
Provide the tenants with a maintenance template, so that they can denote and itemize damage and repair needs. When there is cellular service, you can ask the tenants to use an online maintenance submission form, giving you a complete list of issues across all your properties. This will limit the amount of paperwork to manage and improve the efficiency of reporting and repairs. Have tenants take photographs.
Ensure the tenant is aware that their lease is still binding. Ideally, the possibility of evacuations and property damage were discussed before lease signing, and a clause was included to indicate how to rent and other fees would be handled. However, due to the extenuating circumstances that could stem from the disaster, resulting in lost income and unanticipated expenses for the tenants, treat the situation delicately and fairly. This will help keep tenants loyal to you and your property.
There is a possibility that the overall property is considered inhabitable, but certain parts are rendered temporarily unusable. In that case, the landlord is obligated to give the tenant a proportionate rent reduction.
The landlord can assign the repairs to appropriate contractors and then manage and track the repairswhile also providing immediate updates to each tenant as changes and updates occur. A good line of communication during rebuilding is critical.
Be aware as insurance claims are made and contractors assess the damage that it is possible the property could be deemed uninhabitable.
What if the Property is Uninhabitable?
If after inspection, you or the authorities deem the property uninhabitable, the tenants will need clear directives on their next steps. Your tenants will be upset to learn they do not have a place to live, temporary or otherwise, so offering them as much information and support as you can help ease their anxiety. The faster you and the tenants’ act, the faster the recovery can begin.
Following is some key information to provide your tenants:
More than likely, the local Red Cross will have set up emergency shelters and places of support in town. Have your tenants contact them for temporary shelter if needed.
When a home is declared uninhabitable for an indeterminate amount of time, the tenants must move out, and the landlord will release the tenants from the lease or rental agreement. The landlord and the tenant will need to work together on securing personal property and reimbursement of any fees.
In the case when the housing is determined to be temporarily uninhabitable, the tenants are responsible for securing their own temporary housing. The lease agreement should address how to handle rent payments during this period.
Follow regulations outlined in the Uniform Resident Landlord Tenant Act (URLTA)- the rights and obligations of landlords and tenants- as they pertain to your region, as well as the local and state regulations that are pertinent to the property.
Per the URLTA and other guidelines, it is the landlord’s responsibility to maintain all electrical, plumbing, heating/air-conditioning, and other items to keep tenants safe and healthy. As such, any of the above items impacted during the disaster must be addressed by the landlord.
Find out whether the tenants are interested in returning to the property after all repairs are made.
Once the tenants have moved out, the landlord should act quickly to restore the property to put it back on the market. Landlords can use Avail to manage and track repairs that need to be made. Communication with contractors can be handled directly through the tracking app, and with the ability to include photographs, landlords can minimize the number of site visits required to stay updated on the progress.
Contact your previous tenants, and create a new “for rent” listing when you have a move-in date figured out. When the property is declared habitable, alert your former tenants or publish a listing to find new tenants as soon as possible.
Insurance Claims and FEMA
The first thing a landlord and their tenants should do after they have completed a full assessment of the property is to contact their insurance companies. Have photographs, a full list of damages, policy number, and all other pertinent information ready, so that the claim can be processed and prioritized.
Do not begin cleanup efforts or removal of the property until your adjuster has been to the property: even minor improvements can impact your claim.
Landlords and tenants may also be eligible to apply for Individual Disaster Assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) to recover some disaster expenses. FEMA offers grants, low-interest loans, and other support options.
There Is No Substitute for Preparation
No one wants to think of the worst-case scenario when it comes to natural disasters, but we have all seen the news and know there is no way to stop a tornado on its path of destruction. Being prepared for the worst is the best way to move past disaster faster and move on with your life sooner. Familiarize yourself with preparedness resources, such as the National Red Cross, government agencies, and repair and maintenance tracking options, create an emergency survival kit, and create a plan. When landlords, tenants, and local resources come together during an emergency, everyone benefits.
Laurence Jankelow is the co-founder and chief operating officer at Avail, an online platform for independent landlords and their tenants that provides the tools, education, and support to make renting easy.