Bushfires and my rental property

In a bush city like Canberra even those living in the suburbs need to be prepared for bushfires. 

The ACT Emergency Services Agency have launched a new Bushfire Ready website which gives Canberra households tips on preparing for a bushfire. These tips include how to create a Bushfire Survival Plan, and how to make Bushfire Ready changes to your home. Those Bushfire Ready changes are shown in bold italic font in this FAQ. You can also find out about face to face community information sessions, download a range of helpful apps and look up a map of the ACT to find out whether you live in a Bushfire Prone Area.

There are lots of practical things that can be done to prepare homes and properties for bushfires. This FAQ aims to provide some general guidance on the Bushfire Ready activities that you are responsible for as a tenant and those activities that you should speak to your landlord about.

Getting Bushfire Ready: What are you are likely to be responsible for as a tenant?

The Standard Residential Tenancy Terms (SRTT) require tenants to take reasonable care of premises, and keep them reasonably clean (cl 63(c)). Also, tenants must not negligently permit damage to premises (cl 63(a)).

Tenants are expected to do some gardening to take care of plants and keep the garden clean. This includes keeping grass short, which is one way to prepare your home for a bushfire. It also includes keeping garden mulch away from the house if it is leaf litter from garden plants and surrounding trees. However, it doesn’t include any removal of garden mulch that is part of the landscaping of the property as this may be an alteration to the premises and require the landlord’s consent (cl 67).

As tenants must not negligently permit fire and other damage to their rented property, tenants are also expected to remove and store any flammable items (such as cardboard boxes and cans of petrol) away from the house, particularly if the premises are located in a Bushfire Prone Area.

You are also likely to be responsible for cleaning leaves from the roof, gutters and downpipes if you are reasonably able to do so. For more information see our FAQ “Gutters – do I have to clean them?”.

Additionally, you are obliged to notify your landlord of any repairs or maintenance that are required to your rented premises. This excludes repairs that a tenant would reasonably be expected to do, for example, changing a light globe or a fuse (cl 55(2) and 55(3)). There are 2 types of repairs that the ACT Emergency Services Agency recommends Canberrans undertake to prepare their homes for bushfires:

·          replace any damaged or missing roof tiles

·          seal any gaps in external walls and cladding more than 2mm in size.

These are repairs that are likely to be the landlord’s responsibility because they should generally be done by qualified professionals. The principle here is that tenants shouldn’t have to hire professionals to meet their tenancy obligations.  

The ACT Emergency Services Agency also recommends cutting back trees that are overhanging homes and disposing of the cuttings appropriately.  If:

       cutting back the overhanging trees requires a qualified professional; and/or

       the trees were overhanging the property when the tenant moved in,

it will likely be the landlord’s responsibility to rectify this situation.

You are obliged to tell your landlord if any of the above repairs or maintenance are required. This means you should keep an eye out for trees or large shrubs growing so that they overhang the home, check the condition of external walls and cladding for any visible gaps and check the roof for any missing tiles. For more information about repairs see our Tenancy Factsheet – “Repairs”.

If you live in a property with a body corporate and the trees or large shrubs overhanging the home are on common property, you should still report the need for them to be cut back to your real estate agent or your landlord. Clause 58 of the SRTT states that where the tenant’s use and enjoyment of their rented premises requires repairs to the common property, the landlord has an obligation to take all necessary steps to ensure the body corporate makes repairs as quickly as possible.

Extra things you can do to ensure that your home is prepared for a bushfire are:

·          have a non-combustible door mat

·          make sure the pressure relief valves on any LPG cylinders (such as barbeque gas bottles) around your home face outwards so that flames are not directed toward the house

·          ensure you have a hose which is long enough to reach every part of the home

·          ensure that all hose nozzles and/or connections are metal not plastic

·          obtain contents insurance to protect your belongings, particularly if you live in a Bushfire Prone Area (see also our FAQ – “Contents Insurance – do I need it for my belongings?”).

Getting Bushfire Ready: What should you speak to your landlord about?

Landlords must maintain rental premises in a reasonable state of repair having regard to their condition at the commencement of the tenancy agreement (cl 55(2)).

If you notify your landlord of a fault with, or damage to, your rented premises that causes it to be unsafe or likely to cause injury to either people or property, rectifying the fault or damage will be considered an urgent repair and must be carried out by your landlord as soon as practicable (clauses 59 and 60). You are likely to have a strong argument that a Bushfire Ready repair is urgent if:

       you become aware of the need for the repair and promptly notify the landlord of it during bushfire season (which runs from 1 October to 31 March unless weather conditions warrant an extension); and

       the property is located in a Bushfire Prone Area.

If a repair is not urgent, it must be carried out by the landlord within 4 weeks of the landlord being notified about the repair, unless the landlord and tenant agree otherwise (cl 57).

Once you notify your landlord of the need for repair, your landlord is required to:

·          replace any damaged or missing roof tiles

·          seal any gaps in external walls and cladding more than 2mm in size

·          cut back any trees or large shrubs overhanging the home and dispose of cuttings appropriately

within the above time frames.

In addition, your landlord may be responsible for cleaning leaves from the roof, gutters and downpipes. This would likely be the case if you live in a double story house or your personal characteristics (such as age, disability or injury) prevent you from being able to undertake such work (see also our FAQ “Gutters – do I have to clean them?”).

Things you can negotiate with your landlord

Some other tips for getting your house Bushfire Ready involve making alterations to the premises or adding fixtures and fittings. The ACT Emergency Services Agency suggests that people:

·          plant trees and shrubs that are less likely to ignite due to their low oil content

·          install metal flywire or solid screens to outside windows and doors

·          fit quality metal leaf guards

·          enclose underfloor areas

·          consider erecting steel fences which are the most effective at withstanding the intense heat generated by a bush fire.

Under the SRTT, tenants must not make any additions or alterations, including adding fixtures or fittings, to the premises without the written consent of the landlord (cl 67, cl 68(1)). However, the landlord must not unreasonably withhold his or her consent (cl 68(2)).

If a landlord consents to a tenant adding any fixtures or fittings to the rented premises, the tenant must make good any damage to the premises on removal of them (cl 69(3)). Alternatively, any fixtures or fittings that are added and not removed by the tenant before the tenant leaves the premises becomes the landlord’s property (cl 68(4)).

As some of the Bushfire Ready property improvements will be quite expensive to implement, and will better protect the landlord’s property against bushfires, you may want to try to persuade your landlord to make these improvements. It might help you to direct the landlord to the resources on the ACT Bushfire ready website during that discussion. 

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