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What If The Rental Property Is Destroyed By Natural Disaster?

This quick post is inspired by a recent question seen on Quora. Someone wanted to know what would happen if a residential rental property was destroyed by a natural disaster. What would happen to the tenancy? Would the tenant's ability to rent in the future be affected?

At least in California, the real answer is that this probably wouldn’t be an eviction. An “eviction” on a tenant’s record really only means a judgment for possession of property. If a judgment is not entered in favor of the owner, the case file is sealed by default. (Case files are often sealed as part of a settlement.) Most residential leases have a clause saying what happens if the premises are destroyed due to circumstances outside the parties’ control. In most cases, the lease will provide that if the property is destroyed, the lease will simply terminate. If there is a natural disaster that destroys housing, the local eviction courts will presumably be aware of it and will (hopefully) scrutinize a landlord plaintiff trying to “evict” a tenant from premises that no longer exist.

If something happened like, say, flooding damages a building, tenant vacates thinking the building is “destroyed” and unlivable and doesn’t pay rent, and when rent goes unpaid the landlord gives an eviction notice and sues, and somehow the court never finds out the tenant is out and the tenant never finds out about the lawsuit, I could see that resulting in a default judgment for possession. The tenant should be able to file a motion and go to court to have it set aside or at least sealed, clearing their legal “record.” California courts can set aside default judgments for mistake, inadvertence, surprise, or excusable neglect, and if a tenant not being aware of an eviction lawsuit after their rental was destroyed by a natural disaster doesn't count as "surprise," "inadvertence," or "excusable neglect," it's difficult to imagine what would.

If the landlord was displeased with the tenant’s behavior following a natural disaster and gives negative references, that could affect the tenant’s ability to rent in the future. There’s not much the tenant can do about a negative reference other than get the landlord to agree in writing not to disparage them. For that reason, settlements in landlord-tenant cases (and others) typically include a mutual non-disparagement clause, or a requirement that the landlord give a neutral or better reference.

Hopefully this helps understand what would happen if a natural disaster destroyed a residential rental in California. For advice specific to your situation, it is always best to turn to a qualified landlord-tenant attorney.

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