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PERSONAL FINANCE / KATHY M. KRISTOF

EARTHQUAKE: THE LONG ROAD BACK : Answers for Renters Seeking Earthquake Relief

January 23, 1994|KATHY M. KRISTOF

With thousands of rental units seriously damaged or rendered uninhabitable by the devastating earthquake, renters are asking questions about their rights and responsibilities.

Are you due a refund for part of January's rent? How soon must your landlord make repairs? Can you break your lease if the building has been damaged? Will your renter's insurance pay for your lost belongings?

Here are some answers.

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Q: My building has been declared unsafe by county inspectors. Am I due a refund for part of January's rent?

A: Yes, says Ted Kimball, president of the California Apartment Assn. and senior partner at the Los Angeles law firm of Kimball, Tirey & St. John.

Once a building is rendered uninhabitable, your rental relationship is severed, he says. That means you get back the portion of January's rent that was unused, as well as any applicable deposits.

You can figure out your rental refund by dividing your monthly rent payment by 30 (days) and then multiplying by the number of days you did not have access to the unit. In other words, if you pay $600 monthly, your daily rent rate is $20.

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Q: When can I expect to get my deposit back?

A: Generally, within two weeks. California law requires landlords to provide you with an accounting and return of any unused portion of your deposit within 21 days. But most rental agreements still restate the previous law--which was in effect until Jan. 1--which gives them only 14 days.

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Q: My lease allows the landlord to deduct money from my deposit for cleaning and damage that I have caused. But my apartment was trashed by the earthquake, not me. Can my landlord take part of my deposit for repairs?

A: No, says Jim Wakefield, partner at Cummins & White in Santa Ana Heights. Unless you owed the landlord back rent or utility payments, you should receive the entire amount of your security deposit.

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Q: My building was not destroyed, but there are cracks in my apartment and some things are not working. How quickly does my landlord have to make repairs?

A: The law requires repairs to be made in a "reasonable" period of time, which is somewhat difficult to quantify in a disaster. Normally, non-emergency repairs must be completed within 30 days.

Under the present circumstances, however, you need to be a little flexible because the damage is so widespread that the landlord may have trouble getting contractors to fix the building within that time, according to Ralph Esparza of the Los Angeles Housing Department.

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Q: Do I have the right to break my lease if the apartment building has been damaged?

Only if the building or your unit has been rendered uninhabitable. If the apartment is in decent shape, but some of the amenities--such as swimming pools and recreation centers--are no longer usable, you may have the ability to break the lease, Wakefield says. But, if your landlord balks, or promises to make the repairs in a reasonable period of time, you are contractually bound to live up to your part of the deal. One possibility is that landlords may be willing to lower the rent until the repairs are made.

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Q: Will my renter's insurance reimburse me for the things I lost in the quake?

Generally, no. Most renter policies do not cover losses from earthquakes, floods or nuclear explosions. For these "perils" you must purchase separate coverage. And, even if you had purchased earthquake insurance--which is rare for apartment dwellers--you only would be reimbursed once your losses exceeded the earthquake insurance deductible, which usually amounts to 10% of your policy limits. In other words, unless your losses are huge, they are probably not insured.

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Q: Should I just skip talking to my insurance agent then?

No. Insurance policies do vary, so it's possible that you could have some coverage. And even if you know you do not have earthquake coverage, you should talk to your agent if you plan to apply for federal disaster assistance, says Sean Mooney, senior vice president of the Insurance Information Institute in New York. That's because you will need to certify that you are not being otherwise reimbursed for your losses to get federal aid, he says. For that, you may need a letter from your insurance agent.

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Q: Is there any quick way to get information about where rentals are available?

Yes. Several apartment owners associations have put together a hotline for both renters and landlords, says attorney Kimball. Landlords can list rentable properties through the service, if they agree not to boost rental rates from pre-quake levels for at least six months.

Tenants may call to get a list of available units all over the Southland. The toll-free number is (800) 479-4223.

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