Q. I’m a landlord that lives on the Mainland. Well, last month my tenant didn’t pay rent. I called her cell phone in the middle of the month but she didn’t answer. She finally called me on the 21st and told me that there was a fire at the house and that they moved out the day it happened! Then she said she wants her security deposit back! I called my old neighbor and he confirmed that there was a fire in the living room on about the 1st from a faulty electrical outlet.
He thought I knew about it but that was the first I had heard. What do I do now? Does the tenant still owe me rent and what do I do about the deposit?
A. Wow….where to start. The best place to start is, as always, the Residential Landlord Tenant Code. Under Section 65, Tenant’s remedies for fire or casualty damage, it says the following: When the dwelling unit or any part of the premises or appurtenances reasonably necessary to benefit and enjoyment thereof is rendered partially or wholly unusable by fire or other casualty which occurs without willful fault on the part of the tenant or a member of the tenant’s family, the tenant may: (1) Immediately quit the premises and notify the landlord of the tenant’s election to quit within one week after quitting, in which case the rental agreement shall terminate as of the date of quitting, but if the tenant fails to notify the landlord of the tenant’s election to quit, the tenant shall be liable for rent accruing to the date of the landlord’s actual knowledge of the tenant’s quitting or impossibility of further occupancy.
So the tenant’s failure to notify you makes them liable for the rent up to the 21st.
Because the cause appears to be a faulty outlet, they would not be held liable for the fire. You will want to contact your insurance company right away and check with the fire department to see if they have any report of the incident. You really need to know what happened in order to deal with the rent and the security deposit.
Next, I would recommend that you make arrangements to secure an on-island designated agent to act on your behalf. Pursuant to Chapter 521-43(F) of the Hawaii Revised Statutes this is required by law. Please note that an unlicensed agent may not work for more than one owner. And of course being a professional Property Manager I would recommend that you hire a licensed, professional. Any Property Manager I know would know exactly how to handle a situation like this. But assuming the tenant was not at fault, they still owe the 21 days of rent, but you still need to reconcile the security deposit within 14 days.
Once this is all taken care of you would then need to get the property cleaned up and make it habitable again.