Tips for Securing Temporary Housing After a Natural Disaster

A major disaster can send homeowners in search of temporary living quarters. If you're among them, here's what to keep in mind.

Owning a home is supposed to provide stability, but a major disaster such as an earthquake, fire, or flood can send many homeowners in search of temporary living quarters. As families who may not have been renters for many years suddenly find themselves in the market for an apartment, condo, or other rental property, here's what they need to keep in mind.

1. Get an Advance From Your Insurance Company

Your homeowners' insurance policy most likely includes coverage for "loss of use." That means living expenses, including housing costs, that exceed your normal, everyday expenses. You're within your rights to ask your insurer to send you an advance on those expenses.

If your house just needs relatively quick repairs in order to be livable again, the insurer will pay for a hotel stay. If your house needs major repair or rebuilding, you're going to need a large chunk of cash to cover not only your first month's rent on an apartment, but also a security deposit. In California, for example, the deposit can be up to twice the monthly rent, or three times the monthly rent for a furnished rental (see Cal. Civ. Code § 1950.5). If you rent an unfurnished home, you'll need money for furnishings, too.

Most policies place a dollar or time limit on your loss-of-use coverage to pressure you into acting quickly to get your home repaired or replaced. Think twice before signing any long-terms leases!

2. Look for a Rental That Your Insurance Company Will Approve Of

Your insurance company will pay for a rental that closely approximates the home you can no longer occupy. So, if you lived in a simple one-bedroom in a modest neighborhood, don't set your sights on a lavish condo or four-bedroom mansion.

Call your insurance agent BEFORE you start apartment hunting, and work out an understanding of the reimbursement you can expect (confirm any conversations in writing or by email). The reality may be that only higher-end rentals will be available, in which case you shouldn't have to pay out of pocket. Or, if you're dissatisfied with what's in your price range, you may decide to kick in some money of your own to rent a suitable place.

3. Get Ready to Market Yourself

Your local rental market may have been tight before the disaster, but it can only get worse afterward, as you compete with others in equally desperate straits. Landlords may be sympathetic to your plight, but need to protect their business interests, too. They'll look for the prospect most likely to pay the rent and be conscientious and considerate. Follow the tips below to make yourself stand out.

4. Assemble Documentation the Landlord will Need

Pull together and bring with you key documents establishing your qualifications on the spot, such as:

  • Proof of support from your insurance company. Get a letter from your agent attesting to your situation as a displaced homeowner. Make sure it includes a statement that your coverage will include rent reimbursement.
  • Credit report. To show that you aren't so strapped that you're likely to use insurance money for other expenditures, bring a copy of your credit report. You can get a free copy once a year from all three of the major credit reporting agencies at www.annualcreditreport.com.
  • Proof of employment. Landlords want to make sure you make enough money (typically three times the rent) to afford the place. Get a letter from your employer, on letterhead, attesting to your employment and salary or hourly wage. Ask your employer to offer information on your good qualities as an employee (many of those, such as punctuality and ability to get along with coworkers, translate directly into "good tenant" qualities).
  • Proof of income. If you're self-employed and won't be able to bring a letter from a job, show that you make sufficient income using a copy of your last tax returns. Contact your accountant or tax preparer if you no longer have those (they should have a copy). If you had a home-based business, you may need to provide additional explanation of how you'll continue to work.

5. Watch Out for Price Gouging

Many states prevent businesses from unfairly profiting from calamities by punishing unreasonable post-disaster price increases. For example, California makes it a misdemeanor (punishable by a fine of up to $10,000, a year in jail, or both) to charge a price that exceeds, by more than 10%, the price of an item before an official declaration of emergency (see California Penal Code § 396). The law applies to those who sell food, emergency supplies, medical supplies, building materials, fuel, hotel accommodations and related essential services and supplies. And because of California's 2017-2018 record-setting wildfires, the law also applies specifically to landlords.

A landlord may not increase the price of a vacant unit more than 10% of the rent that existed before the emergency was declared. For example, the landlord can't bump up the rent on a $2,000 unit to more than $2,200. To check for any such price jumps, ask the landlord, check the newspaper (the online version may not have been updated), or ask neighbors.

It is also a misdemeanor for a landlord to evict a tenant (unless the eviction was already underway) and then rent or offer to rent the unit to another tenant for more than what the evicted tenant could legally have to pay.

These "anti-gouging" requirements are not restricted to the area where the disaster occurred, nor do you need to be personally impacted. The statute punishes price-gouging anywhere in California where consumer demand has increased as a result of the declared emergency.

If you encounter a rent-gouging landlord, consider filing a complaint with your local prosecutor's office or with the statewide attorney general. In California, tenants can fill out an online form at the Attorney General's website.

6. Know What You're Signing: A Lease or a Month-to-Month Rental Agreement

Once you've found a suitable rental, you'll want to sign a lease or rental agreement. Here's why the difference matters:

  • A rental agreement runs month to month, and self-renews until the landlord or tenant terminates it, with proper notice (in most states, 30 days). The landlord can also increase the rent with proper notice. The ability to leave on 30 days' notice makes the rental agreement flexible but also exposes you to a rent hike (or termination) by the landlord.
  • A lease is for a set period of time, typically a year, during which time the rent can't be increased. You also can't be told to leave unless you've done something wrong, such as not paying the rent. You pay a price for this stability: should you decide to leave, you'll still be responsible for the balance of the rent. In most states, if you break your lease early the landlord must take reasonable steps to rerent and offset your rent liability with the new rent.

Consider which arrangement is better for you (assuming the landlord gives you a choice). Rebuilding a house can easily take months, especially with architects and contractors suddenly in short supply. If the market is tight and might continue to be so, you might benefit from a lease, knowing that the rent will be locked in and that if you leave, the landlord won't have much trouble finding a replacement tenant. However, know that the rent-gouging law referred to above covers only tenancies that run month to month, not leases.

7. Understand Your Local Fair Housing Laws

Fair housing laws protect all applicants from discrimination on the basis of, among other things, familial status (families with children), disability, and gender. You may need to call upon fair housing law if, for example, you encounter a landlord who has set an overly restrictive occupancy limit, perhaps trying to keep out families. In general, landlords must allow two persons per bedroom (in California, it's "two per bedroom plus one"). If your family of three is willing to live in a one-bedroom apartment, the landlord is on thin ice by declaring it's too small.

8. Know Your Rights as a Renter

The landlord's major responsibility is to provide and maintain a safe and habitable home. This means that if the roof leaks, the toilet doesn't work, or the hot water is scalding, you're entitled to repairs. Other important tenant rights include the right to a rental that's reasonably secure from criminal intrusion, and the right to privacy (many states limit the reasons, and time, a landlord may enter your home, and set specific notice periods). Especially if you'll be a renter for a substantial period of time, you'd be well advised to learn the rules (see "Resources," below).

9. Prepare for a Smooth Exit Once Permanent Housing is Secured

You'll be leaving this rental when your home is rebuilt, repaired, or you choose another. Make sure you're in line to get that security deposit back and leave with no lingering hassles with the landlord. You're expected to return the rental in the same condition as when you rented it, normal wear and tear excepted. If you damage the property, the landlord can deduct from the security deposit for repairs.

10. Get Renter's Insurance

While you're a renter, you need to protect the items that you're purchasing to get on with your life. Talk to your insurance agent about adding a renters' policy to your existing homeowners' policy (it shouldn't cost much).

Resources for Renters

To fully understand your rights and your responsibilities, check out these resources from Nolo:

  • California Tenants' Rights, by attorneys Janet Portman and J. Scott Weaver, explaining the law to California renters.
  • Every Tenant's Legal Guide, by attorney Janet Portman and Marcia Stewart, which covers the law in all 50 states.
  • Renters' Rights, by attorney Janet Portman and Marcia Stewart, a shortened version of Every Tenant's Legal Guide, geared for use by tenants in every state.

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