Landlords v renters: Who’s on the hook for flood damage costs?

Drenched northern NSW is in for a brief reprieve from the punishing rain as Premier Dominic Perrottet visits waterlogged communities in the Riverina.

Drenched northern NSW is in for a brief reprieve from the punishing rain as Premier Dominic Perrottet visits waterlogged communities in the Riverina. Photo: AAP

Many homes around Australia have been drenched by floods this year, and sorting out who’s paying for the flood damage can be confusing.

Insurance Council of Australia data released in September shows that in 2021-22, insurers paid out $6.41 billion from more than 380,000 claims, which was $3.9 billion more than the previous 12 months.

Insured losses from floods in February and March cost $5.28 billion, one of the costliest natural disasters in Australian history.

And more flooding is now occurring in Victoria and New South Wales, adding to these mammoth damage bills.

But while homeowners have their insurance to help cover costs, renters might be wondering who will help pay for their repairs – their landlord?

Rules and obligations vary from state to state, so The New Daily has compiled some helpful information below, but renters are advised to reach out to their local tenancy union to get more specific information.

The cleaning bill

Landlords are responsible for maintaining rental properties, and that includes cleaning or clearing any debris includes fixing damage caused by a natural disasters.

Renters, meanwhile, are generally responsible for cleaning that arises from their use of the property.

Repairs or replacements for personal items are only the landlord’s responsibility if they have been negligent; otherwise, it’s renters and any insurance polices they hold which are most often responsible.

Local Victorian communities banded together in residential clean-up efforts following recent floods. Photo: AAP

When it comes to bonds, Better Renting executive director Joel Dignam told The New Daily that this money can only be collected at the end of a lease, and it can only be used to pay for wilful or negligent damage.

Damage caused by natural disasters and normal wear and tear usually can’t be fairly blamed on tenants, so your bond should remain safe.

Landlords also can’t use bond money for the cost of removing damaged furniture and other belongings that were caught up in natural disasters.

Repair rights

If a utility service has been cut off because of damage to the property, landlords must organise repairs to restore the service.

But if the outage hasn’t been caused by a natural disaster, renters must contact their utility company to get their services restored.

If repairs are needed as soon as possible, renters should contact their landlords immediately and explain that urgent repairs are needed to avoid taking the blame if issues worsen.

To pay or not to pay rent

If a property has been rendered unliveable, renters can contact their landlord, agent or bank to cancel their rent payments until damage can be repaired.

Renters can also negotiate with landlords over rent reductions, depending on the severity of damage to the property.

“When there’s a tenancy agreement, the landlord is making a commitment that the property is going to be available to the tenant to use, and if that if that doesn’t happen, even if it’s not the landlord’s fault, then those terms of the contract aren’t being met,” Mr Dignam said.

But with the tight housing market, tight housing markettihe said renters might feel pressure to avoid negotiations so as not to spark any retaliation from landlords.

“A bigger problem for people renting in Australia is that you feel very powerless … you don’t want to rock the boat,” he said.

“Particularly, after a flood maybe there’s a scarcity of rental accommodation, you might not want it to end a tenancy, you might not have somewhere else you can go.

“So in practice, [negotiating rent after a flood] is really difficult.”

Avoiding lease terminations

If a home is labelled as uninhabitable by a natural disaster, Tenants’ Union of New South Wales CEO Leo Patterson Ross said both the renter and the landlord also have the right to terminate a lease.

If the renter feels the property will be habitable once repairs and cleaning are carried out, they should be clear when asking for a rent reduction that the home will only be uninhabitable for a short time.

Renters can get building reports or quotes for repair costs to back up their claims if the landlord disputes that the property is still habitable, but paying for these services will come out of the renter’s pocket.

Mr Patterson Ross said their are obligations for landlords, but the rules are mostly “built on the same fundamentals”.

“In general, this is really about one party … [promising] the use of a property and where that’s not able to be delivered, then there needs to be some allowance for that,” he said.

To get a better understanding of rights following a natural disaster, renters should get in touch with a local tenant advice service or union.

Mr Dignam said renters should also make termination of lease or rent negotiation requests in writings to keep accurate records.

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