Ask an Expert

Is my landlord responsible for cleaning up a storm-related sewer backup?

  • Landlords must make apartments livable after a sewage flood
  • You should know renters may be entitled to a rent abatement
  • It’s unlikely your landlord or insurance will cover damaged personal items
By Teri Karush Rogers | October 24, 2022 - 12:30PM

Your landlord must return the apartment to livable condition but damages to your personal items are on you.

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Question:

My apartment was flooded by sewage during a severe rainstorm. Who pays for the cleanup and damaged possessions? The landlord? Insurance? Does the city have any responsibility?

Answer:

Your landlord is responsible for returning your apartment to livable condition after a storm-related sewer backup, but you’ll probably have to foot the bill for ruined or damaged personal belongings, our experts say.

Sewage cleanup after a storm is your landlord’s responsibility

“Under New York’s warranty of habitability, your landlord is responsible for putting your apartment back into habitable condition. That includes things like cleanup, detoxification, and mold remediation, if necessary, after a sewer backup,” says Sam Himmelstein, a tenants’ rights attorney at Himmelstein McConnell Gribben & Joseph (and a Brick Underground sponsor). “It doesn’t matter if the backup wasn’t caused by your landlord.” 

In addition, your landlord may owe you a rent abatement.

“In a sewage flood, your apartment is likely completely uninhabitable,” Himmelstein says. Under the warranty of habitability “that means you may be entitled to a 100 percent rent abatement for the period of time you’re unable to live in your apartment.”

Personal property damage from a storm-related sewer backup is typically the renter’s responsibility

Unless you can prove that your landlord’s negligence caused the sewer to back up into your apartment during the storm, you’ll have to pay for damaged or ruined possessions, Himmelstein says.

If your landlord didn’t use ordinary care that a reasonable person would expect to protect your apartment from being flooded, you could sue, Himmelstein says. You could file a claim inexpensively in small claims court if you’re seeking less than $10,000 in damages. 

Just remember that you’re only entitled to the amount your belongings were worth in their existing condition—not the cost it would cost to replace them with brand new items, Himmelstein says.

“That couch you bought for $3,000 over 10 years ago is probably worth $500 now,” he says.

Renter’s insurance probably won’t help either, because the backup is due to general flooding conditions rather than a situation unique to your building, says New York City apartment insurance broker Jeffrey Schneider, president of Gotham Brokerage (a Brick Underground sponsor). Schneider says he’s seen a recent spike in storm-related sewage backups.

“A backup that occurs as a result of a general inundation in your area would only be covered under a separate FEMA flood policy,” Schneider says. If you’re concerned about future storm-related damage like a sewer backup, ask your insurance company for a quote on flood coverage.

Sidenote: Sewer backups unrelated to flooding are frequently covered by higher-end apartment insurance policies. If not, Schneider says, you can add it to your policy. For example, contents coverage up to $5,000 would cost around $25 per year, he says.

Is the city responsible for sewer backups?

“I don’t see that the city has any responsibility unless the backup was caused by a defective water main or something else the city had a duty to maintain,” Himmelstein says. 


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Teri Karush Rogers

Founder & Publisher

Founder and publisher Teri Karush Rogers launched Brick Underground in 2009. As a freelance journalist, she covered New York City real estate for the The New York Times. Teri has been featured as an expert on New York City residential real estate by The New York Times, New York Daily News, amNew York, NBC Nightly News, The Real Deal, Business Insider, the Huffington Post, and NY1 News, among others. Teri holds a BA in journalism and a law degree from New York University. 

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