What to do after storm damage, and dealing with insurance companies and landlords

A man stands inside the Collaroy Beach Club, which was severely damaged by heavy rain and storms. Source: AAP

Whether your own home’s been damaged or flooded, or you’re a tenant or a landlord, or if a tree’s fallen on your car, or your boss is giving you hell for not making it in to work – here’s our guide to dealing with storm damage.

Your tenancy rights

If your rented property is leaking, has been damaged or is totally unlivable, then you should be aware of your legal rights. 

“A landlord has a general duty to maintain the property in a reasonable state of repair. The tenant has a general duty to inform the landlord when there is a repair or maintenance issue,” Melanie Bradfield, Tenants Advocate from the Redfern Legal Centre told The Feed.

Bradfield said it was important to inform your landlord as soon as possible if there’s storm damage; otherwise you could be liable if things gets worse.

If your landlord has insurance for the property though, you may be covered under it.

While it’s unlikely their insurance will cover damage to personal property, most insurance policies will cover emergency tenant accommodation – so it’s definitely worth asking about. If there’s severe damage their policy may cover the costs of alternate accommodation for you while repairs are underway.

If your landlord doesn’t have insurance, you might still have some rights. You’re entitled to negotiate a lower rent if the damage or repair-work is impacting your use of the property, and your landlord might have to forego some rent if you have to live elsewhere while repairs are made.

If the damage is so bad that the place is uninhabitable, then you can speak with your landlord and end your lease – you don’t have to keep paying rent.

Laws in every state are different, so Google your tenancy union for advice.

You will almost always have an obligation to mitigate damage as well. That might mean making sure the windows are shut or there’s a bucket or tarp in place to catch a leak – whatever the situation, you should make reasonable efforts to prevent further damage occurring.

Car and property insurance

Alexandra Kelly, Principle Solicitor at the Financial Rights Legal Centre, told The Feed the first step once you've sustained damage is to work out if your covered, and to get in touch with your insurance company as soon as possible.

“In these sorts of catastrophes it can take a long time for an assessment to take place, so getting yourself in the queue is the best place to start,” she said.

It could be weeks or months before claims are assessed, Kelly told us. The Insurance Council of Australia yesterday declared the east coast storms a catastrophe, but told us their guidelines for a maximum wait time of four months still applied.

“They triage around what’s really important – getting to a person’s place to fix a retainer wall will probably take priority over assessing a car that’s damaged but still drivable,” she said.

You will likely also have an obligation to prevent or mitigate any further damage occurring – so you may have to set up tarpaulins or take other stop-gap measures. Kelly says you should keep your insurance company in the loop about what you’re doing, so it doesn’t become an issue later.

While you’re waiting, you shouldn’t throw out items on the assumption they’ll be covered - the insurance company may want to assess the damage. If something is completely destroyed and needs to go, be sure to take photos to prove the damage later.

Yesterday, the Insurance Council of Australia activated a disaster hotline: 1800 734 621.

Flood and Water Damage

Alexandra Kelly told The Feed that one thing which can become an nightmare for policyholders is water damage. Most policies will cover damage from storm water, but might not cover damage from floodwater - check your policy.

“With these sorts of events – flood, storm, tidal damage, all these sort of perils that we saw – there might be some issue about whether they’re going to cover it,” she said.

The trick here is to take note of where the water was coming from and what colour it was - Kelly said that was a really important issue in the Queensland floods several years ago. Water directly from the storm normally looks quite clear, whereas water from flooded lakes and rivers tends to be brown. 

Dealing with Insurance companies

When it comes to dealing with insurance companies, the Financial Rights Legal Centre recommends keeping extensive records.

You should take notes about when you talk to them, what you tell them, and what they say. Taking photos of damage and your mitigation efforts is also important.

Insurance companies may give you the option of a cash payout, or offer to contract repair services on your behalf. Alexandra Kelly told us it’s sometimes better to get them to organise it for you, because repairs will likely then come with a lifetime guarantee.

If you’re unable to pay an excess, you can ask your insurance company to deduct it from your payout, or ask them to arrange for you to pay it in installments.

If you’re having trouble with an insurer, or you've fallen behind on repayments, you should get in touch with the Financial Ombudsman Service Australia.

They may be able to help resolve things, and make sure creditors and insurance companies are playing by the rules.

Need more help?

Community legal centres like the Financial Rights Legal Centre and the Redfern Legal Centre say they see a spike in clients after natural disasters like the most recent storm. They can offer you free advice and sometimes take issues forward on your behalf.

The Financial Rights Legal Centre, National Insurance Hotline: 1300 663 464

Disaster Legal Help Victoria: 1800 113 432

Redfern Legal Centre: 02 9698 7277

Financial Ombudsman Service Australia (Debt and Insurance issues): 1800 367 287

National Association of Community Legal Centres

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