Question: We have been in the same rental house for the past eight years. Last Monday night, we were awakened by a strange noise in the kitchen, and discovered that the kitchen was on fire. My wife and I got our kids out first, then the dog, and everyone is OK. We also managed somehow to get the garden hoses out and fight the fire ourselves, and managed to put a good deal of it out before the firefighters arrived. However, there is severe damage to the house, and smoke and soot damage to our belongings. The cause of the fire (per the fire department report) was the dishwasher. It got stuck in the dry cycle, and evidently heated the wiring to the point that it started a fire behind the dishwasher.

We do not have renter’s insurance. Our landlord’s insurance company will cover the repair of the house, but not any of our losses, including the cleaning of our things. We have had to secure temporary housing at a considerably higher rate than we have been paying, and our world has been turned upside down. We have had a great relationship with our landlord over the past eight years, but we feel that this fire was a result of their negligence, and think they should pay for our repairs and assist with the additional cost of our temporary housing. We are not paying rent on the house at this time. We have not had any discussions with them yet; we have talked with an attorney, but we really don’t want to sue if we don’t have to. The landlord wants us back when the house is rebuilt, and we’d kind of like to move back in at that time. But we’re looking at four to five months that we have to live somewhere else. What are their legal responsibilities to us?

Property manager Robert Griswold replies:

Well, first I am sure you now understand why you should have had renter’s insurance. If you did, then you would submit a claim to your insurance carrier and they would have covered your claim and made you whole, providing for your alternative living expenses as well. Your insurance carrier would most likely seek reimbursement against the landlord for your losses, as the cause of the fire was not any negligence on your part. Of course, this is all moot because you don’t have a renter’s insurance policy that I believe every tenant should carry to protect them in these unfortunate circumstances. Since you don’t have renter’s insurance you should try to make a claim directly with the landlord’s insurance carrier. That carrier is likely to deny your claim as you are not their insured. Next, you need to decide if you want to pursue legal action. You could file a small-claims action if your damages are less than the maximum limits or you are willing to essentially accept only partial payment of your losses. Or you can hire an attorney and pursue a full-blown civil action. You apparently have already made some inquiries in this area and know that it will be expensive. Sometimes just hiring an attorney to send a letter indicating the facts and demonstrating that you will take further action if necessary can be enough to get the landlord’s insurance company to be fair and reasonable. Of course, the magnitude of your casualty loss in dollars and the jurisdictional limit for small claims may be the deciding factor of whether small claims (with its nominal cost and swift results) is preferable or you need to gear up for a long and expensive battle. While you are at it, go out and buy a renter’s insurance policy!

Question: I was renting a room in a home but I have since had to move out of this residence. I have been going through some very tough times (anxiety, depression, etc.). The living conditions were unhealthy for me so I am now stuck trying to find someone to sublease my room. I simply can’t afford to pay rent at two homes. I was trying to find out if there is any way to break a lease in this type of situation. If not, is there a way that I can “buy out” my lease?

Property manager Griswold replies:

While it is understandable that your personal issues are serious challenges for you, they are not legal grounds to unilaterally terminate your lease. You have a business relationship with your landlord and a contractual responsibility to meet regardless of your personal situation. So unless you have a legitimate basis to claim that your landlord breached your rental agreement, you must fulfill your legal obligation. However, I would advise you to contact the landlord and see what you can work out. They may be very understanding and work with you or unilaterally agree to release you from any further commitment under the lease. Of course, this would be completely voluntary by the landlord. If that doesn’t work, then you can make a financial offer to your landlord to buy out the lease, but the landlord does not have to agree. Of course, the landlord must make an effort to mitigate or reduce the potential damages (future rent obligations) by attempting to re-rent the rental to someone else.

This column on issues confronting tenants and landlords is written by property manager Robert Griswold, author of “Property Management for Dummies” and co-author of “Real Estate Investing for Dummies,” and San Diego attorneys Steven R. Kellman, director of the Tenant’s Legal Center, and James McKinley, principal in a law firm representing landlords.

E-mail your questions to Rental Q&A at rgriswold.inman@retodayradio.com.

Questions should be brief and cannot be answered individually.

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