‘Pay now or pay later’ – firey

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Queenstown tenants are being strongly advised to take out contents insurance to guard against being sued for damaging rental properties and loss of personal items in an emergency.

That’s the message from Fire and Emergency New Zealand fire investigator John Smalls, who says he’s attending more and more house fires where tenants haven’t taken out insurance and are left with a huge financial loss.

The issue came to light after a devastating fire, probably caused by a faulty light switch, gutted a Sunshine Bay home last week.

A Queenstown hospitality worker returned from an overnight shift at 4.30am to find her bedroom engulfed in flames and thick smoke, before waking up her housemate and a friend, who’d slept through smoke alarms.

The landlord had insurance; however, the tenant didn’t and was left with just the clothes on her back.

“I know Queenstown is a very expensive place to live, but I can’t stress the importance of having renters insurance for emergencies like this,” Smalls says.

“This poor lady has literally lost everything – it’s a real shame.”

On average, contents insurance can be between $250 for a basic policy through to $600 for a comprehensive policy.

Smalls says it’s worth every penny.

Di Finlay, from Queenstown’s Rothbury Insurance Brokers, says taking out insurance is even more crucial following changes to the Residential Tenancy Act, which came into force last month.

New laws make tenants liable for an amount equal to four weeks’ rent, or the landlord’s insurance excess, whichever is lower, in any incident of damage.

The question of who pays for accidental damage to a rental property has been a long-running issue in New Zealand.

In 2016, a high profile case saw the Court of Appeal rule Auckland renters Kenji and Tieko Osaki were not liable for damage caused when they left a pot of oil on high heat and unattended for five minutes.

A blaze caused significant damage to the home.

The couple were deemed to be immune from any liability, which their landlord had insured, because it was ruled to be unintentional.

Now, if a tenant is found to be negligent, they could be held responsible.

Finlay says basic contents cover can protect people for up to $2 million, but people can also choose any amount they wish to insure their personal belongings for.

She says while it’s not possible to estimate the percentage of Queenstown tenants protected by contents insurance, it’s certainly not common practice.

“We believe landlords should make it a requirement of their lease that tenants hold a basic contents policy.”

miranda.cook@scene.co.nz