When a natural disaster like the 416 Fire forces renters to evacuate their leased home, they often wonder if they can get a refund for days they weren’t inhabiting a place. But, Colorado has no laws about the rights and responsibilities of renters and landlords in these situations.
Lindsay Marshall, managing attorney with the Durango office of Colorado Legal Services, and Doug Reynolds, an attorney specializing in landlord-tenant issues with the Reynolds Law Group in Durango, both said the lease is the governing document guiding renter-landlord relationships. The best course of action, they said, is for renters and their landlords to have an honest conversation.
In Colorado, rent is a matter of contractual obligation covered by the lease, Reynolds said.
“If lease provisions cover a natural disaster, you would follow that. Absent that,” Reynolds said, “the landlord has a right to continue to receive rent. A landlord could cut an agreement with a tenant on rent, but he would be under no legal obligation to do so.”
Unfortunately, Marshal and Reynolds said most leases are unlikely to have any provisions regarding displacement and evacuation caused by a natural disaster.
“The key is to have communication with the landlord as soon as possible” if a tenant is under evacuation notice, Marshall said.
Landlords living in the region are more likely to be understanding, she said. The situation might be more difficult, she added, with landlords who are out of state or if the rental property is run by a management company.
Marshall said open, honest communications between tenants and landlords would likely help find equitable agreements on how evacuations will be dealt with and an understanding on any rent modifications.
“At the end of the day, good communication between the parties can avoid a lot of headaches,” Reynolds said.
Usually, leases do have provisions that allow for early termination of a lease, and renters can look at their specific leases to see if it can be applied to an evacuation forced by the fire, Marshall said.
Also, leases usually have a warranty of habitability requiring a landlord to provide a livable space, but Marshall said it is usually used to force landlords to ensure proper maintenance of a rental.
Withholding rent, Marshall said, is a bad idea.
“There is no law in Colorado to withhold rent, and it’s dangerous. A landlord can go after you,” she said.
If a tenant and a landlord have not come to an agreement on how monthly rent will be handled in the case of the evacuation, Marshall said the safest course of action is to pay the monthly rent if at all possible.
Tenants should keep track of all the extra expenses incurred as a result of the evacuation such as hotel room, rent or money they are paying friends or relatives to stay in their homes so they can document their costs.
“These aren’t great options, and it’s tough on landlords, too. They may want to break the lease as well. The point is to have communication as soon as possible,” she said.
Reynolds said landlords are under no obligation to help renters with an evacuation, and they have a right to enter property to prevent damage, for example, to conduct clearing to create defensible space or to turn on sprinklers.
“Specific Colorado law recognizes the ability of landlords to protect property from damage,” he said.
The fire is also driving home the point that rental insurance is a good idea.
“A lot of renters don’t have renter’s insurance,” Reynolds said.
A renter’s property is unlikely to be covered for loss in either the renter’s lease or in the homeowner’s insurance.