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Disaster Struck My Rental Property, Now What?

Authored By: Iowa Legal Aid LSC Funded
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Information Iowa Legal Aid Disaster Relief App

Information

In a disaster, time can seem to move both too slow for some things and too fast for others.  If you have been affected by fire, lightning strikes or other natural disasters in Iowa you have some options.  If it is safe to stay in your rental home or unit, then you can continue with the lease.  If it is not safe to stay, then you can end your lease and move. There are special things that you must do, whether to continue with the lease or to end it, and there are important deadlines you must know.

The Proper Way to End Your Lease: The 14 Day Deadline

If the home that you rent is not safe to live in, is damaged so that you cannot use much of the home, or is destroyed, you must act quickly.  If you want to end your lease and move, you need to write to your landlord.

The letter needs to be written, mailed (or handed) to your landlord within 14 days of evacuating the home.  The letter should say why you have been forced to move from the home, and the date when you left.  If a deposit was paid when you moved into the home, you need to give the landlord an address where the landlord can mail the deposit.  If you have already paid rent for the month, you can get a partial refund from your landlord.  The refund would be from the time the disaster made your home unlivable to the end of the month.

Keep a copy of the letter for your records.

Your landlord can deduct certain amounts from your security deposit before refunding you.  This could include things like overdue rent.  The cost of repairing the disaster damage should not be deducted from the deposit unless you, the tenant, in some way caused or knowingly allowed the damage to take place.  The refund should be sent to you within 30 days.

The Tenant Can Provide His or Her Own "Essential Services," When it is Lawful to Stay, if the Landlord Fails to Do So.

If you want to live in the rental home, and it is lawful, you can ask your landlord to still provide essential services.  The law requires a landlord to keep a home in a fit and habitable condition.  There may be major damage to the structure, electrical system, plumbing, and other essentials.  Put all requests to provide essential services in the home in writing.

Keep a copy of the letter for your records.

If your landlord refuses to make the repairs to the essential items, then you are allowed to get the essential service yourself and deduct the equivalent amount from the rent.  Iowa law does not limit the amount that can be deducted from the rent in order to get essential services.  However, before you deduct the cost from your rent, you should consult a lawyer to help figure out what is an "essential service."

Keep all receipts.  You should be ready to provide a copy of the receipts to the landlord along with the part of the rent that you do pay.

You Can Ask That the Landlord Make Repairs When it is Lawful to Stay; You Can Make Your Own Repairs If the Landlord Fails to Make the Repairs.

If repairs need to be done but they are not essential, you may still be able to get the repairs completed.  You must tell the landlord in writing at least 7 days (11 if you’re mailing the letter) before rent is due that the repairs are needed.  In writing, tell your landlord you will complete the repairs yourself and will deduct the costs from your rent.  Keep in mind that the repair cannot be for an amount more than one month's rent.  Also keep in mind you must have the repairs completed before receiving a written notice from your landlord stating his/her intent to end your rental agreement for nonpayment of rent.

Keep a copy of the letter for your records.

If you make the repairs, all receipts must be kept.  You should be ready to provide a copy of the receipts to the landlord with the part of the rent that you do pay.

If it is Lawful to Remain in the Home, but Your Use Has Been Substantially Limited, You May Be Able to Reduce Your Rent.

If it is lawful, you can remain in your rental home.  Even if the tenant has no money to make the repairs on his/her own, the rent due to the landlord may be reduced.  However, this option can be very risky because a judge may not agree with your decision to only pay part of the rent.

If your use of the home is greatly limited due to a natural disaster, then you are only responsible for the fair market value of the portion of the home you are able to use.  The change in the amount of rent owed is as of the date the damage took place.

If your home is uninhabitable, you may have a legal argument that you do not owe any rent.  If the fair market rental value of the home is $0, then you may not owe any rent at all.

It is very important to record the condition of the home by writing to the landlord.  Pictures of the condition of the home will be very useful if the landlord tries to evict you for not paying or under-paying rent.  In court you must show that the fair market rental value was lessened by damage from the natural disaster.  This is the way you can justify the reduced rent you owe to your landlord.  If possible, you should hold on to the amount of rent that you did not pay.  The court may require the payment be made to the clerk of court to stop an eviction action for nonpayment of rent.

·       Iowa Legal Aid provides help to low-income Iowans. 

·       To apply for help from Iowa Legal Aid:

o   call 800-532-1275

o   Iowans age 60 and over, call 800-992-8161

OR

o   apply online at iowalegalaid.org

·       If Iowa Legal Aid cannot help, you can look for an attorney on “Find A Lawyer” on the Iowa State Bar Association website – iowabar.org.   A private attorney there can talk with you for a fee of $25 for 30 minutes of legal advice.

Iowa Legal Aid Disaster Relief App: www.iowalegalaid.org

Last Review and Update: Feb 16, 2016
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