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Who is responsible for repairs after a rental house fire?
August 16, 2012 9:02 AM   Subscribe

Asking for a friend- Who is responsible for the cost of repairs after a house fire? I am renting the house. I have renters insurance. The fire report said no negligence on my part. I'm located in California.

Fire. So the landlord assessed the fire damage, and said that I am 100% responsible for fixing the damage with a licensed contractor.

I asked if the owners had fire insurance and if it would be an option for me to pay the deductible and have the insurance take care of it, and he advised me that this would happen: the insurance would charge 5 times the amount that a regular contractor would charge to fix the product (believable), then sue me for that cost after they had fixed it (also believable, knowing insurance). Even though the fire report said that there was no negligence on my part, the landlord said that the insurance company would find loopholes in their contract in order to recover their money from me.

Advice anyone? I am already trying to get the insurance company information so that I can talk to them about it, and be better informed about my options. Anyone know anything about how house insurance works?
posted by Secretariat to Law & Government (31 answers total)
 
Dude, that is bullshit.

You are NOT responsible for the fire. Period. End of discussion.

Don't even volunteer to pay the deductable. Don't run around. In fact, if the house is not livable, your landlord is responsible for emergency housing until you find a new place.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 9:05 AM on August 16, 2012 [33 favorites]


Hah, no.

Your landlord has to fix it and is trying to rip you off. I'm sure the next 4 posters will quote california tenant law, but this is pretty obvious.
posted by Oktober at 9:06 AM on August 16, 2012 [12 favorites]


Uhh, that isn't how it works, at least not here in California. You have a right to a safe and habitable living area, it is your landlords responsibility to provide that. The landlord has to do the repairs, unless they can show it was caused by your negligence. Lawyer up.
posted by Garm at 9:07 AM on August 16, 2012 [9 favorites]


Total bullshit. Don't give him a red cent. He owns the structure; he fixes the structure. Your insurance covers your belongings. Don't give him a red cent.
posted by dpx.mfx at 9:07 AM on August 16, 2012 [10 favorites]


Your landlord is trying to rip you off.

the insurance would charge 5 times the amount that a regular contractor would charge to fix the product

That's not how insurance works. The insurer pays to restore the value of the house. The insurer generally doesn't 'fix the product,' although they sometimes have contractors that they prefer to work with.
posted by muddgirl at 9:09 AM on August 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


N'thing. One of the perks of renting is that things like this are NOT your problem. Don't even offer him anything.
posted by phunniemee at 9:09 AM on August 16, 2012 [10 favorites]


You have no responsibility for any cost of repairing the house. Pack up and walk away.
posted by HuronBob at 9:09 AM on August 16, 2012 [5 favorites]


I am a California landlord but IANYCL. Your landlord is responsible for these repairs. You should contact your local tenants' rights organization.
posted by padraigin at 9:10 AM on August 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


You are definitely being fucked with here. Money's on the fact that he a) doesn't want to pay to do the repairs himself and b) doesn't want to pay a higher premium by filing an insurance claim, so if he gets you to pay for everything, he's made in the shade.
posted by griphus at 9:10 AM on August 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


Don't talk to the insurance company. Don't pay the deductible. Don't pay anything. If the landlord refuses to do the necessary repairs and you don't want to move, talk to a lawyer or a tenants' group.
posted by enn at 9:15 AM on August 16, 2012 [2 favorites]


Also, don't give the landlord the original copy of anything (i.e. fire report.)
posted by griphus at 9:17 AM on August 16, 2012 [6 favorites]


What caused the fire, exactly? If it wasn't your doing, either the owner or the person who started it is responsible for fixing it.
posted by SillyShepherd at 9:18 AM on August 16, 2012


Why does your landlord dispute the fire report and who did he get to assess the damage?

You not only need to not pay, but to remind your landlord - through a lawyer if necessary - that you've paid for accommodation you can live in safely. I would also be very careful about what you say about how the fire started before you consult either a lawyer or a tenants' rights organisation.

I'm not generally a fan of the run to the lawyer directly advice, but this is a case where a not so subtle reminder to your landlord that the law is on your side is highly desirable. Because even if your landlord knows his liability, the gameplan here could be:

1) Convince you to pay; if that fails
2) Try a legal avenue to convince you it's your fault, and to pay; if that fails
3) Dick you by not fixing it, or not fixing it quickly, while still charging you full rent.
4) Dick you out of your security deposit.

In short: your goal here is to establish legally that you were not at fault. Make sure that you are clear that the fire report does that job for you in the eyes of the law.
posted by MuffinMan at 9:20 AM on August 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


The following is not meant as an accusation:

I do find it interesting that the OP states "[t]he fire report said no negligence on my part", but doesn't state that said fire wasn't her fault. If there is any chance the fire could be claimed as the fault of the OP, she should be drastically more careful than the people here are suggesting. The landlord is only responsible for fire damage that is not due to (any) fault from the tenant; if the fire is due to (any) fault of the tenant, the tenant is at least partially liable for the damages.

I'm not saying anything here - really - other than that before you go to the landlord and say the landlord is 100% responsible for the damages, that you make sure you are 0% responsible for the damages under any interpretation of the fire events. If you aren't, the landlord can, and will, attempt to get you to pay as much of the damages as possible.
posted by saeculorum at 9:21 AM on August 16, 2012


What?! No. Lawyer. Absolutely, lawyer.

Don't even communicate with your landlord again until you talk to a lawyer.
posted by MexicanYenta at 9:28 AM on August 16, 2012


The landlord is only responsible for fire damage that is not due to (any) fault from the tenant; if the fire is due to (any) fault of the tenant, the tenant is at least partially liable for the damages.

This isn't a valid reason for a landlord to compel a tenant to deal with this behind the back of the insurance company (and possibly the bank wich may hold a mortgage on the property) which is what the landlord is suggesting.
posted by muddgirl at 9:33 AM on August 16, 2012 [3 favorites]


Anybody trying to recover money from a person in this case would have to prove negligence. The only thing they have besides ones mouth, is the fire report. I recommend ceasing any communications and move on with ones life...preferably in a new spot.
posted by couchdive at 9:35 AM on August 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


muddgirl: This isn't a valid reason for a landlord to compel a tenant to deal with this behind the back of the insurance company

To be clear, I'm not saying the OP should or shouldn't pay for an independent contractor out of pocket, nor am I saying the OP should or shouldn't pay for the landlord's deductible. I'm only saying that immediately saying the OP is not liable for any of the damage is premature, unless the OP is absolutely sure there is no way she could be perceived as not liable for the damages.
posted by saeculorum at 9:36 AM on August 16, 2012


Contact your local tenants' rights organization, stat. Do NOT communicate directly with the landlord any further on this, do NOT make ANY offers to accept any part of the repair costs --- and perhaps you should consult with a lawyer, because this sounds like it's about to get really nasty, and it's better to cover your ass NOW than risk this dude dragging you to court to pay his bills. (Plus go talk to your renter's insurance company to make sure of what they will and won't cover.)
posted by easily confused at 9:37 AM on August 16, 2012


...and to be clear, my point is that liability is a red herring, here. Even if the tenant is 100% responsible for the cost of the fire damage, the tenant's renters insurace, the landlord's home insurance, the homeowner's mortgage holder (if there are mortgages) should be involved.
posted by muddgirl at 9:45 AM on August 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Just to reiterate what others have said above, your landlord isn't even describing the process correctly. I wonder if he's ever used insurance, or if he's being deliberately deceptive (perhaps the latter).

Just to throw my voice in there, you aren't responsible. If you want to see your landrlord squirm a bit, you can turn the tables on him and let him know that he's actually responsible to you at this point to provide a safe place to live. Press a bit, and I'm sure you'll see some changes in attitude.
posted by SpacemanStix at 9:53 AM on August 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


I am not a lawyer, but my brother just went through this--albeit as the landlord of a property that a tenant (accidently) set on fire. (There's a reason condos prohibit grills being used on decks, folks!)

Here's what happened in their situation:

1. My brother (the property owner) was responsible for the cost of fixing/remediating the fire damage to the structure, although any damage to the personal property of the tenant wasn't his responsibility. His homeowners policy paid for the quite extensive repairs. (Rates can be different/higher for homeowners insurance if you're renting out the place rather than occupying it; maybe this is why your landlord doesn't want to get his insurance involved? In any case, not your problem.)

2. Because the fire was clearly the fault of the tenant's actions, after repairing the structure his homeowner's policy went to the renter's insurer and extracted some money. Many (most?) renters policies include liability coverage--which means if you're at fault for something and someone else suffers a loss, your renters insurance should pay damages. Check your renters policy, it's very possible you've got insurance in the event that you were sued for the cost of repairs and somehow found negligent. My old, cheap renters policy (~$100 per year) had liability coverage up to $100,000, if I'm recalling correctly.

In any event, I think it's REALLY IMPORTANT that your friend not pay for repairs. This sounds really shady. If there is a tenant's rights organization in your area, definitely hit them up for advice.
posted by iminurmefi at 9:53 AM on August 16, 2012 [9 favorites]


What caused the fire, exactly? If it wasn't your doing, either the owner or the person who started it is responsible for fixing it.

No, it is the landlord's property and he is responsible for fixing it, even if the tenant caused the fire. That is what insurance is for. In the case where the fault lies with a 3rd party, like a tenant or neighbour, the insurer can seek compensation from the tenant or the tenant's insurer.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:56 AM on August 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


Speculation here, but this makes me wonder if the landlord has the house insured as a rental property. Insurance for rental property is more expensive than regular homeowners. And if he bought the house with a mortgage, he might have possibly represented it as his own home or as a second home to get the loan (banks don't like making loans for investment properties these days). That might explain his hesitation at getting his insurance company involved.
posted by kimdog at 10:03 AM on August 16, 2012 [4 favorites]


Just to clarify on the cause of the fire- the report says something like "accidental spontaneous combustion from natural source". Essentially, it's really hot out so the roof caught on fire.

Going in, I was pretty sure it sounded wrong for the renter to be responsible- so thank you for these anecdotes. Neither of us know anyone who has had something similar to this happen, so it's sort of new territory. It's interesting to hear that the homeowner's insurance covers things like this regardless of who is at fault- that must be one of the reasons why insuring a rental home would be more expensive than normal homeowners insurance.
posted by Secretariat at 1:54 PM on August 16, 2012 [1 favorite]


Just to chime in, California laws strongly protect tenant rights. Your friend should contact the housing authority in his/her town and go there for further help. Perhaps start by calling his/her city councilman's office.
posted by special-k at 4:17 PM on August 16, 2012


Insurance companies don't "charge" to repair anything. Their business goal is to pay out as little as is legally possible, actually. In my house fire experience, if a contractor says it'll cost $50,000 to repair something, the insurance company will authorize some FRACTION of that, not a multiple of it.

Your landlord is at least ignorant about the process or at most deceiving you in order to not ding his insurance or not draw attention to code violation or something similarly sketchy.
posted by ImproviseOrDie at 2:27 AM on August 17, 2012


PS

I would get away from that landlord ASAP. I have no doubt this guy is scamming this.
posted by couchdive at 10:59 AM on August 17, 2012 [1 favorite]


My apartment was involved in a fire, albeit in another state. Since your landlord is scummy, go through now and document everything. Take pictures of every single item you own and store them online. If your items have been damaged, get detailed pictures. If the structure has been damaged, get detailed pictures. Call your rental insurance company; they should tell you exactly what to do. In my case, my apartment was rendered uninhabitable and my insurance company paid for a hotel and for a restoration/cleaning company to clean and move all my stuff to my new place, as well as document what was destroyed in the fire. If there is significant damage or the apartment is currently unlivable due to smoke, then you don't have to pay rent for an apartment that is unlivable.

You are only responsible for your items. If the carpets or walls need to be cleaned, that's on your landlord.
posted by PrimateFan at 8:29 PM on August 17, 2012


I've passed all this information along- it's very helpful. My friend says: Thanks for the advice! One thing that would really help right now is any concrete information on actual cases regarding this or similar landlord/tenant disputes. The more particular the better!
posted by Secretariat at 2:49 PM on August 21, 2012


Update: There appears to be one (strategic?) piece of personal mail that the landlord receives at this address on a recurring basis- thanks, kimdog, it's likely that your speculation is correct. My friend is contacting the housing authority/tenants rights organizations and documenting the situation. I marked a few best answers, but the pile-on of "don't pay, it's not your problem" was also reassuring. Thanks!
posted by Secretariat at 9:21 AM on August 26, 2012


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