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The Landlord and the Flooded Rental

Updated on May 1, 2018
tamarawilhite profile image

Tamara Wilhite is a technical writer, industrial engineer, mother of two, and published sci-fi and horror author.

The Landlord and the Flooded Rental

Natural disasters like hurricanes and torrential rains can cause unexpected flooding. Development around a property could alter the surrounding flood plain, such that once in century floods begin hit every few years. However, these floods aren’t predictable and the risk is variable, so landlords rarely need to have flood insurance unless the property is literally repeatedly flooded. However, landlords may end up dealing with flooded rental properties on a regular basis due to factors like annual snow melt. And landlords may face unexpected floods due to issues like plumbing problems.

What do you need to do if your rental property floods? What should your tenant do if the rental unit floods? What are the obligations on each side, and what are their liabilities?

Landlords are expected to provide working plumbing, and they're liable for damages if they don't maintain it.
Landlords are expected to provide working plumbing, and they're liable for damages if they don't maintain it. | Source

When the Basement Is Flooding

Landlords are obligated to inform a tenant of a property’s propensity to flood, including the basement. Landlords cannot simply require someone have renter’s insurance if the property is prone to flooding due to natural disasters. If they know the property is prone to flooding whether it is due to regular events like snow melt or irregular heavy rains, the landlord needs to have a clause in the lease requiring flood insurance in order to have a legal “out” when it floods. And the tenants must be clearly notified up front of this issue before they sign the lease.

The landlord has an obligation to remediate any flood damage and ensuring the space is habitable. This may include pumping out water, drying things out, cleaning and repainting as necessary. They’ll need to fix structural issues like shifting foundations and cracked walls. Landlords will need to replace provided appliances that were damaged by the flood, if applicable. Habitability includes mold treatment anywhere it is needed inside the rental unit.

In many jurisdictions, it is illegal to turn a basement or below-ground space into a habitable room unless the walls can’t leak and the space is impervious to surface run-off water. If a landlord finishes a basement and it isn’t up to code, such as not having properly installed sump pumps, the flooding and related damages are the landlord’s fault. Then the tenant can demand compensation for the related damages.

The landlord doesn’t have to provide a dehumidifier if the basement is “sweating”, but it would be wise to do so anyway. If the landlord installs a dehumidifier to control humidity, the lease needs to address who is responsible for emptying it unless it automatically drains to a sink or nearby drain.

A landlord isn’t likely to owe damages if an act of nature floods everyone’s basements or homes. If only the landlord’s property floods, then the landlord might be responsible in some way, such as not ensuring proper drainage around the home. However, if you’re faced with a potential suit, consult with a legal professional.

When Other Parts of the Rental Flood

Tenants have an obligation to take care of the property, and this includes preventing flood damage. For example, if the tenant left the hose on next to the house and it flooded, the damage is their responsibility. Someone who leaves a sink running that overflows onto the floor is liable for the damages.

If the tenant repeatedly clogs toilets and tubs that then overflow, such as flushing diapers and feminine hygiene items down the toilet, then they’re responsible for the damages. If the tenant is trying to alter the plumbing without permission, such as installing another sink or toilet, and the pipes leak or burst, causing a flood, the tenant is responsible.

If the toilets are periodically backing up because tree roots are growing into the sewer line, it is the landlord’s obligation to have the matter fixed. If it isn’t fixed, the landlord is obligated pay for any damages to the tenant if flooding results.

If a hot water heater breaks, the landlord is obligated to replace it and any structural and pre-existing items damaged by the water. One possible exception to the water damage liability by the landlord would be if the tenant intentionally turned off the leak detector. If the minor leak is unaddressed though it could have been, the damages of the catastrophic failure are on the tenant instead of the landlord.

If the tenant doesn’t keep the property warm enough for water pipes not to burst, it is the tenant’s fault. If the landlord doesn’t keep the furnace working and the pipes burst as a result, it is the landlord’s fault.

If the landlord didn’t keep the plumbing in good working order, the landlord could be liable for the excessive water bill due to the leak, as well. If the landlord attempts to repair pipes and causes the leak because they aren’t qualified to work with plumbing, it is the landlord’s fault.

General Tenant Obligations Regarding Flooding

Tenants must inform the landlord of issues that need to be repaired to have a claim for damages. If there is a serious leak in the basement or constant weeping contributing to mold growing down there and the tenant doesn’t report it, the landlord can’t address it. Then the landlord doesn’t owe damages if the leaks become a torrent and flood the basement. If the sinks or toilets are slow to drain and the landlord doesn’t know, then the landlord isn’t likely to be held liable when it totally clogs and overflows.

If the tenant reports seepage into the basement and the landlord doesn’t address it, the landlord has now opened the door to liability for any damage to the tenant’s possessions. That is because the leaks are a known hazard or defect of the property.

If the tenant doesn’t let the landlord in to make repairs, then any subsequent legal case they make is weakened. However, if there is any doubt, seek expert legal advice.

General Landlord Obligations Regarding Flooding

The landlord isn’t responsible for a tenant’s damaged property unless they are found to be negligent in some way. Not maintaining a sump pump in a basement apartment would be one way the landlord would be liable for damages. Failure to address leaking pipes that subsequently burst and flood the residence is another. They are likely liable if they knew of the problem and failed to correct it.

In general, a landlord isn’t responsible for damage to a renter’s possessions. A potential exception to this is a known hazard like a basement that regularly floods and a tenant who didn’t know this before storing items there. A landlord gains a measure of legal protection by informing any potential tenant of the flood risk and requiring them to have renter’s insurance as a condition of leasing the property.

Some properties are at risk of flooding that makes them uninhabitable; a below ground apartment would be one. It is the landlord’s responsibility to make the residence habitable if the property flooded. However, it isn’t the landlord’s responsibility to remove the tenant’s possessions out so that the property can be rehabbed. They may not want to touch the person’s possessions due to the risk of a lawsuit when someone says, “You threw out my prized X!” Many jurisdictions also limit the tenant’s potential claims if they didn’t take reasonable steps to protect their property once flooding was discovered.

© 2018 Tamara Wilhite

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