Property Maintenance - Winter Tasks
Yikes! It's really cold out there. If you were on your game and thoroughly prepared your properties for the winter (see our article: ‘Fall Property Maintenance’), you have already minimized the number of tenant repair requests you might have otherwise received. On the other hand, 'old man winter' probably won’t permit you a pass if you sit by a cozy fireplace with a cup of hot chocolate all season long. There are several things you must keep up with throughout these next few chilly months.
The Rental Agreement
- Lease Responsibilities - What are your weather related responsibilities as a property manager/landlord and what is the tenant required to do?
- Reminders - Have you reminded your tenants what their weather related responsibilities are? Have you made sure that they have the proper equipment to accomplish their winter related tasks? Have your reminded them about the dangers involved with space heaters, too many electrical cords strung around for Christmas decorations? Are their fire extinguishers charged? Are their smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors functioning? Do they know where the master water shut-off is located in case there is a leak in the house? Is it worth losing time and money simply by telling yourself that they should know better and it is their fault if they don't do what is legally expected of them?
- And If Not? - There is a painfully expensive difference between what a tenant is supposed to do and what a tenant neglects to do. Many tenants just don’t understand the importance of property maintenance. Are you willing not only to remind and equip your tenants about their responsibilities, but to also follow up in order to make sure that they have appropriately followed through?
- Reconsidering Tenant Responsibilities - Even though you may prefer that your tenants take responsibility for certain winter tasks, if you find that you have to spend too much time following up on them or redoing what they didn’t do correctly, you may want to change some of the details in your lease agreement. It may be worthwhile to hire someone to do the outside winter maintenance work rather than to expect - and worry about - tenant follow-through.
Snow and Ice Damage
- Drive by - Simply driving by your properties can give you a quick idea of what has been left undone. Contact the appropriate people, whether it is your tenant or maintenance crew. The winter weather is often unyielding and unforgiving. Hours count.
- Roofs - How much snow can accumulate on your property roofs before it is too much? What are your plans for removing roof accumulations of snow? Is the snow on certain portions of the roof melting much faster than on the rest of the roof? Is there an insulation problem? Don’t forget to check the roofs on sheds located on the property as well. The tenant may not use it, but you may still want it.
- Gutters - Has ice built up in the gutters? Are icicles weighing down your gutters? Are they hanging in dangerous places where they could fall on others? Is water backing up into your house?
- Sidewalks and Stairs - Have the sidewalks been pre-salted in preparation for a storm? Has the snow been removed after the storm? Is black ice present? Is the condition of the walks an invitation for a lawsuit if someone slips and gets hurt? Is there a particular type of salt you prefer to be used on sidewalks and driveways - one that may be less damaging to the lawn and other vegetation?
- Parking - Who is in charge of snow removal from the driveway and/or parking spaces?
- Trees - Has ice and/or snow so heavily accumulated on the trees and bushes near your property that they may break and damage power lines to your property?
- Snow Removal - Where is the appropriate place to deposit snow removed from driveways, sidewalks, vehicles, and parking spaces? What are the relevant city ordinances?
- Fire Escape - What are the emergency exits from your property? Have they been cleared of snow and ice? Can doors and windows be opened easily or have they been frozen shut?
- Pipes and Faucets - Hopefully your fall maintenance included properly preparing pipes and faucets for the winter. Do a quick check just to make sure that everything received the necessary attention earlier.
- Windows and Doors - Even though you may have replaced weather striping, stand close to the windows and doors during the coldest days to see if there is any breeze coming through. Also, check for any moisture accumulation around the windows. While you are checking for breezes, if there is a chimney, make sure the damper is closed if the fireplace is not being used.
- Loss of Power - What are the contingency plans if your property loses electrical power for an extended period of time? Are there alternative sources for heat? If not, what is your plan if the temperature in the house drops below freezing? What are your tenants expected to do until power is restored?
- The Attic - Carefully examine the attic to see if there is a buildup of frost inside. While there, note the level of insulation. Are there bare spots? Is the amount of insulation adequate? If you can see the joists, you probably don’t have enough insulation. Are there any drips from pipes or uninsulated heating ducts?
- Gates - If your property is accessed through a gate, has the weather rendered it inoperable? If the power has been lost to the property, will the gate still open manually?
- Foundation Vents - Check to see that foundations vents have been closed for the winter.
It is a bit too late to think about who to hire to remove snow and/or to repair winter related damages ‘after’ they have occurred. Know who to call when needed. Know what to expect regarding how long it will take for them to respond. Are they spread too thin? If there is an emergency, what is their guaranteed response time? What is their reputation?
As mentioned earlier, requiring tenants to perform specific maintenance duties can be more trouble than it is worth. Many tenants have little or no background in even the simplest of maintenance responsibilities. Even when they are taught exactly what they must do, and the consequences for failing to exactly do as required, many tenants are procrastinators and have a different set of priorities than do property owners.
This issue is particularly important to address when it comes to winter tasks. By the way, the tenant who under performs on necessary winter tasks can be as problematic as a tenant that over performs. Some tasks, such as removing snow from a roof or removing icicles can be dangerous. Some tenants over salt driveways, steps, and sidewalks. Some well-meaning tenants attempt to do things that they really aren’t either fully trained or equipped to do, such as removing ice draped branches from power lines.
All this underscores the need to make sure that lease agreements are well thought through. What can be reasonably expected from most tenants? Are you willing to educate your tenants? Will you make regular inspections of the property as well as to drive by periodically for a quick examination from the outside?
Don’t neglect to care for your vacant property - even if it is vacant for just a few days - especially during freezing weather. Make sure the power remains on and the property is heated. It is best to not let the temperature drop below 55 degrees. If the power is lost, have alternatives in mind - space heaters, draining pipes, etc. Hire a qualified plumber to winterize your property if it will be vacant for a longer period of time. Take care of the outside of the property so that you are not broadcasting that it is vacant simply by the fact that it has not been attended to. Clear the driveway, shovel the snow off the walkways and steps, and removed large accumulations of snow from the roof. Let prospective renters/buyers know that it has been winterized and to not attempt to do anything that would alter that fact.
While you can’t eliminate every possible thing that could go wrong, if you have thought through these items you can eliminate many problems. Be vigilant. Be proactive. Then take a break in front of your fireplace with a hot cup of chocolate.
Note: the above discussion, as in all our articles, is meant to bring attention to the many aspects of property management. None of our articles exhaust all possibilities. Each property owner and/or property management company must take the responsibly to do their own research and get professional counsel as needed.