Renter’s Rights: Storm, Fire or Theft

HOUSE - apartment building Photo Credit: Francesca Saraco

Here is a starter list of helpful tips for renters either before or after a disaster, fire or theft. Remember, landlord-tenant rights vary from state to state and even county to county.

Before A Disaster

Before leasing or renting, make sure your building is safe and up to code.

  • Look for smoke alarms, fire escapes and extinguishers in the hallways and in the apartment.
  • Check the state of the apartment. Look for needed repairs like cracks, leaks, drafty windows, etc.
  • Check to see if windows and doors are easy to open. Look for security measures like security alarms, deadbolts, locks on windows, etc.
  • Check out the condition of the heating/cooling, hot water, and plumbing systems.
  • If you believe you need to add extra safety measures, talk to the landlord about your safety concerns and what you both can do to improve your safety situation.

After you move in, take the following precautions.

  • Make sure there’s a number on your apartment door. If there isn’t, contact management to install one.
  • Make an inventory of all your items in the apartment and back it up with a video or photographs.
  • Make an emergency escape plan and practice it. Remember, in apartments or condos, often there is only one way in or out—no back door. Know at least two ways to get out of your apartment.
    • Draw a floor plan of your residence. Mark two escape routes from each room and two from the apartment, and that the routes are secure, safe and intact.
    • Place a copy of the plan in the bedroom of each family member. Make sure the plan is easily accessible.
    • Pick a family meeting place outside the apartment building.

WHN TIP – Get Advice: Not sure of the best way to exit from your apartment or other areas in your apartment complex? Ask your landlord or a fire or emergency official for advice.

  • Know where all fire extinguishers, smoke detectors and fire escapes are located.
  • Know where the fire alarms are located in your building and how to operate them in an emergency.
  • Learn building escape routes and evacuation procedures. They should be posted on every floor.
  • Know the sound of the fire, tornado and general warning alarms, and leave the building immediately when you hear them. Never ignore the alarms.
  • Keep your balcony clutter-free. Piles of furniture, toys and junk can be good places for fires to start unnoticed, plus they block an escape route.
  • Get acquainted with elderly and/or special needs people in your building who may need help in an emergency. You can either assist them or direct help to their apartment.

Consider buying Renter’s Insurance

While the landlord is responsible for damages and losses for the physical structure of your apartment, you are responsible for your personal belongings. Renter’s insurance protects your possessions in case of disaster or loss. You can get renter’s insurance from insurance companies and some banks.

WHN TIP – I Know You: Consider purchasing renter’s insurance from an agent with whom you already have a policy. You may be eligible for a discount and you would only have one company to talk to after a large event.

Here’s what to know and ask about renter’s insurance.

  1. What’s the cost? Premiums can be as low as $10-15 each month.
  2. What’s the coverage?
    • Does it only cover items in the apartment or items you might have elsewhere, such as in a storage unit?
    • Is it only for possessions or does it cover someone getting injured in your apartment?
  3. What are the terms and payment options?

WHN TIP – Acts of Nature? Renter’s insurance may not cover all acts of nature. Most policies will cover storms and fires but they will not cover floods, general water damage or earthquakes. Talk to your insurance agent about what events are not included in your policy.

After a Disaster

Again, while rights vary in each situation and location, here is a starter list of tips to help you through.

  1. Contact the Red Cross for help with immediate needs such as housing, food and clothing.
  2. Make sure you walk through before the property is turned over to the landlord. Landlords are not required to recover your belongings.
  3. Insured?
    • If you have renter’s insurance, your personal belongings should be covered. Find your policy and contact your insurance agent to file a claim or learn more about your coverage.
    • If you are not insured, you will be financially responsible for replacing your belongings.
  4. Uninhabitable?
    • If you cannot live in your apartment and it has been deemed “uninhabitable,” you may be able to terminate your lease, receive a refund or cease payment. Check the landlord-tenant laws for your area, but most state that if your rented home or apartment does not supply the basics (electricity, water, heat, plumbing, weatherproofing and a structurally safe and sanitary structure), you can choose to leave. (Go to Tenant Rights to Withhold Rent by State for state-specific details.)
    • Consider consulting your insurance agent or your legal representative about your renter’s rights as well.

For More Information

Nolo’s Renter’s Rights
The page covers eviction, security deposits, insurance, statutes and other important issues related to renting. is a legal guide, which provides do-it-yourself legal solutions for consumers and small businesses.

Photo Credit: Francesca Saraco

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