Landlord Obligations in the Winter
You always have them—specific responsibilities toward your tenants and your occupied rental properties under the laws of most states. These are responsibilities having to do with habitability. But they take on a special significance and importance in the winter months.
Other times of the year the items we will discuss below can be an annoyance to tenants if they aren’t working properly or are broken; during the winter they can be positively life threatening in the northern half of the country.
Effective Waterproofing and Weather Protection
You need to keep the building weather tight. That means that if there are roof leaks, holes in exterior walls, broken windows or some other situation that allows the weather to come inside your tenants’ dwelling units, it is your responsibility to get it repaired, or at least covered temporarily so that the weather stays out.
“But my tenant did the damage!” is the usual response. It doesn’t matter. Go ahead and make the repairs. After all, you are exposing your investment to the weather by not making the repairs. Keep a close accounting of how much it costs, and send a bill to your tenant.
If he or she doesn’t pay, you have a couple of options:
1. Take the cost out of their security de-posit
2. Evict him or her for damaging the unit (and then take it out of their security deposit)
Keep in mind that many states have a limit on the time you can hold a specific charge over a tenant’s head for deduction from a security deposit. It may be one year, two years or even five years. You’ll have to check your state law or an attorney to find out. So you’ll want to get your money, or at lease establish a claim for it, before that time period is up.
Adequate Heating Facilities in Good Working Order
The “good working order” piece is the easiest. If the furnace breaks, you have to get it fixed. In most states there is a specific time period in which you must at least start the repairs, often that is 24 hours. If you can’t get it fixed during that period of time, the law may require that you pay for your tenants to stay in a motel.
“Adequate heating facilities” is more difficult to come up with a specific answer for. What happens if you get complaints from your tenants that the “can’t ever get warm”? Then they threaten to de- duct things from the rent because they are cold.
FHA financing requirements state that the heating system must be “adequate to heat all [finished] rooms to 70 degrees Fahrenheit” three feet above the floor. That is certainly reasonable. Some units are drafty and feel colder than the temperature would indicate. If you were so inclined, you could certainly make those units more weather tight, but following FHA appraisal guidelines would certainly be an adequate standard.
Electrical Equipment in Good Working Order
This can be a big concern during the win- ter. During cold weather, space heaters may get plugged in and left on when people are gone. Making sure that the electrical system is in good working or- der can be extremely important for pre- venting fires. If you aren’t sure that it’s adequate, best call in an electrician.
Working Smoke Alarm
Every state requires that these be in good working order when tenants move in. After that, some require that the tenants change the batteries, some states require that they be hard-wired, still other states require that the landlord make sure they work.
Even if your tenants are supposed to make sure the batteries are good, are you going to trust them to leave batteries in and then tell the truth after the fire? No matter what the requirement where your property is or what kind of smoke alarms you have, it behooves you to test them sometime before the cold really sets in and write down somewhere that you did it and when.
If any of your units have fireplaces, they deserve special attention. One in 20 fires in this country start in chimneys and one in eight fires start in living rooms, probably many of those beginning as the result of some incident with a fireplace.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has these suggestions about fireplaces and wood stoves:
• Have the chimney or wood stove inspected and cleaned annually by a certified chimney specialist.
• Clear the area around the hearth of debris, decorations and flammable materials.
• Always use a metal mesh screen with fireplaces. Leave glass doors open while burning a fire.
• Install stovepipe thermometers to help monitor flue temperatures.
• Keep air inlets on wood stoves open, and never restrict air supply to fire- places. Otherwise you may cause creosote buildup that could lead to a chimney fire.
• Use fire-resistant materials on walls around wood stoves.
Other than the real potential you have for fire loss, there is another reason for careful maintenance of the fireplaces and chimneys: liability. If a fire starts in your property and it can be shown that you were not as careful as some judge and jury think you should have been about chimney maintenance, you could end up on the wrong end of a liability judgment. If you have a chimney specialist check and clean several chimneys and flues, you can probably work a good deal for the lot of them.
You can get a free winter maintenance checklist from http://www.sdao.com/ref/RiskMgmt/winter_weather.pdf.