After storm Q&A for renters

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Answers to some of the questions renters face after a hurricane.

Q: If my rental home is damaged so badly by the hurricane that I can no longer live there, what choices do I have?

A: You may do one of the following:

Remove your belongings and write the landlord a letter stating that you want to end your rental agreement.

Treat the rental agreement as if it were in effect and move back in as soon as conditions allow, provided your home is repaired during the rental period.

If the landlord fails to act in a reasonably timely manner to repair your home, you may sue and ask a judge to order the repairs.

Q: If I want to keep on renting my home, but can't live in it now, do I have to pay rent?

A: According to the Florida Residential Landlord and Tenant Act. Chapter 73 - 330, if you are renting a residence that is damaged by a hurricane, you have special rights and responsibilities. Repairs are the responsibility of the landlord. You should immediately notify the landlord of any damage to the property and you should make reasonable efforts to help protect it from any additional damage. The landlord is responsible for having the residence repaired and returned to livable condition.

If repairs are not made within a reasonable time, the tenant has the right to have the rent reduced or in some instances terminate the lease and move.

Q: Can't the landlord end the rental agreement because I don't pay rent?

A: No. If your home is uninhabitable or deemed an "unsafe structure" your unit has no rental value. You have no duty to pay even though your rental period is running.

Q: If I can only use part of my home, what choices do I have?

A: If the use of your home is extremely limited you may adopt one of the options listed in the answer to number 1. If your home has not been condemned, you may continue to live in that portion that is not badly damaged.

Q: What do I do about rent if I live in only part of my home?

A: If you can only use part of your home, you only have to pay for the value of the percentage of the home that you use.

Q: How do I know how much to pay?

A: Try to reach a fair agreement with your landlord.

Q: What if my landlord and I can't agree?

A: You can do one of the following:

Pay only what you believe is a fair and reasonable rental price, and be prepared to substantiate your case when the landlord takes you to court for nonpayment of rent.

Pay what the landlord asks and sue in court to ask a judge to reduce the rent and order the landlord to return your overpayment.

Q: Even though my home might be OK, what are my rights if the outside property is badly damaged?

A: If the hurricane has caused the premises to be badly damaged (for example, outside stairs are torn apart; your parking lot, driveway, or garage has been destroyed and you have no place to park, etc.) you may have the same rights as tenants whose homes have been damaged so badly that normal use and occupancy has been "substantially impaired." These rights are explained above.

Q: If I want to end the lease and move, how can I get my security deposit back?

A: If you are moving because your home has been badly damaged, you should let your landlord know in writing that you want to end the agreement within a week after you move. You should, in the same letter, tell your landlord you want your security deposit returned. The landlord has to return your deposit within 15 days or give you a written explanation as to why he/she is keeping it.

Q: Can the landlord keep my deposit because I didn't stay for the full lease period?

A: No, not if you are leaving because your home has been badly damaged.

Q: What can I do if the landlord does not return what I believe he/she should?

A: You should file suit, but should consider hiring a lawyer before doing so. If the landlord wrongfully keeps your deposit, the court can make him/her pay your attorney's fees.

Q: Can my landlord force me out?

A: If your home has not been condemned, the landlord can force you out only if you have broken the rental agreement. He/she must, in that case, follow the normal eviction process.

Important Points

  • Keep a copy of everything you send to your landlord.
  • Send all mail to your landlord certified, return receipt requested.
  • It is not always necessary to retain an attorney in landlord/tenant disputes. A consumer may file an action in Small Claims Court.