Rights & responsibilities of landlords & tenants affected by bushfires

Rights & responsibilities of landlords & tenants affected by bushfires

With much of Australia struggling through a long drought, bushfires burning in large parts of New South Wales and Queensland and no decent rain in sight, it’s important to understand the rights and responsibilities of tenants and landlords in these situations.

Bushfire season has started very early this year with some of the worst fires we have ever seen in this country occurring before the start of summer and more severe conditions ahead of us predicted. Unfortunately total fire bans, activating bushfire emergency plans and hazardous air quality due to smoke haze could be the new norm for the eastern states this summer. So as a property manager it is vital that you understand the rights and responsibilities of both landlords and tenants in bushfire emergencies.

Protection of life and safety is always the number one priority in any disaster situation. If the advice of fire authorities is to leave, then tenants should be urged to heed this advice. However there are a number of grey areas you need to be mindful of as a property manager, such as who is responsible for clearing the roof and trimming trees and scrub around the property to prepare a property for bushfire events and what happens to the tenancy and bond in the result of a disaster event?

Here is a list of bushfire related FAQs

Who is responsible for preparing the property to protect it against bushfires?

While in most cases, the tenant is responsible for mowing the lawns and maintaining the garden, it is the landlord’s responsibility to activate a bushfire preparation plan to protect the property. This would include things like:

  • Trimming trees and scrub close to the dwelling,
  • Clearing trees or branches around power lines,
  • Clearing the roof and gutters of debris.
  • Can the owner or tenant break the lease in the event of a disaster?

The tenant, owner or property manager is entitled to end the Tenancy Agreement if the property has been destroyed or has become unfit to live in.

What happens to the rent if the tenant moves out temporarily or decides to stay in a partially damaged property while it undergoes repair work?

The rent should be waived or reduced. Any agreement to this effect must be put in writing.

  • Is a landlord obliged to compensate a tenant for damage to furniture or personal belongings resulting from a natural event like bushfire?

No. It is the tenant’s responsibility to arrange their own contents insurance to protect themselves against loss or damage to their personal property.

What happens to the bond of a property is destroyed completely or partially and the tenancy is terminated?

There is no hard and fast rule on this one. However owners, property managers and tenants are encouraged to work closely with each other to achieve a satisfactory outcome. According to the REIQ, owners and property managers are “strongly discouraged from unreasonably retaining bonds in circumstances where a premises has been destroyed or is completely or partly unfit to live in”.

Is the owner obliged to compensate the tenant for costs associated with moving to emergency housing?

No. However a tenant may be entitled to receive emergency hardship assistance from the State Government. As a property manager, you should be aware of the contact details of those services in the event of a natural disaster so you can direct tenants to the right place for assistance.

As property managers, are you responsible for finding alternative accommodation for tenants affected by a disaster event like a bushfire?

No, you are under no obligation to find alternative accommodation for affected tenants. However, you may choose to help by referring tenants to groups like the Salvation Army, the Australian Red Cross, St Vincent de Paul, Lifeline, the State Government’s Emergency Assistance Line and any other organisations that are offering assistance in your area.

What to do when a tenant has evacuated due to a bushfire emergency

  • Advise the tenant not to return to the property until it is declared safe to do so by the relevant authorities.
  • Recommend that the tenant contact their contents insurance provider if they have contents insurance.
  • Once the property has been declared safe to return to, ask the tenant to describe the extent of any damage.
  • If the property is habitable and any services have been disconnected, contact the relevant utility service provider to request reconnection.
  • If the property is deemed uninhabitable, ask if the tenant has somewhere to go and if not, put them in touch with the relevant groups as listed above.
  • Don’t attempt to inspect a property until it is deemed safe to do so.
  • Follow the instructions of your state’s Real Estate body (in the case of NSW and Queensland refer to the REINSW or REIQ respectively) for instructions on terminating the tenancy if the property is deemed uninhabitable.

Sources – REIQ Disaster Toolkit & NSW Fair Trading