What are your rights and responsibilities under North Carolina law if you are a tenant and your rental unit is damaged extensively or destroyed by a natural disaster?
First, if you have a written lease, read it carefully to determine if it contains any terms regarding repairs, termination of the lease, alternate housing, or other matters in case of extensive damage to, or destruction of, the premises.
Second, if the premises are so severely damaged by a disaster that they are unfit or unsafe for occupation, then a tenant has three options:
Under N.C. Gen. Stat. §42-12, a tenant may notify his landlord in writing within ten (10) days of the damage that he is canceling the lease. The tenant must also pay all rent that was due up to the date of the damage or destruction;
If a tenant does not follow this statutory process, then he may still be able to cancel the lease if the landlord does not make the necessary repairs. North Carolina law requires a landlord to keep the premises in fit and habitable condition. Once the landlord is notified of the damage to the premises, he is required to make repairs within a reasonable time. If he fails to restore the premises to a habitable condition, then the tenant is entitled to rescind or cancel the lease. If possible, the tenant should rescind or cancel the lease in writing.
If the landlord is willing to make repairs and the tenant wants to return to the premises, then the tenant should try to negotiate a reasonable timetable to allow for repairs and reentry. The tenant's duty to pay rent should not resume until he is restored to possession. Full rent should not be paid until all of the repairs are finished.
Third, a landlord cannot use forcible or self-help measures to evict a tenant, or seize and withhold his personal property. A landlord must get a court order before he can evict a tenant or remove his possessions from the premises.
Finally, a landlord is generally not responsible for the damage to, or loss of, a tenant's personal property due to a natural disaster. A landlord could be liable, however, for damage to a tenant's personal property from a storm if the landlord failed to make pre-storm repairs. (i.e. - leaking roof) and it caused the damage to the tenant's property.
If you have renter's insurance, then you should read your policy, take photos of the damage, contact your insurance company as soon as possible, and follow its procedures for filing a claim.