Are Your Properties Ready for Winter?
Outsmarting Jack Frost
By Christian Bryant
Even though the current legislative climate for landlords (especially in Oregon) is very distracting, don’t let it keep you from protecting your property and preparing for winter. If they take the proper steps before winter comes, many landlords will avoid damage, unnecessary after-hours repair expenses, and lawsuits. These expenses can soar up into the tens of thousands of dollars. Next to improvements that will increase rent, and properly managing your tenant, investing in repair and maintenance avoidance will have the largest impact to your long-term bottom line. If you manage your own properties, you really can’t afford to skip these steps. And if you have a professional manager, you need to verify that their weatherization policies and procedures mimic these guidelines. To be as prepared as possible, there are three areas to focus on: the property, the tenants, and your business procedures.
When it comes to preparing your rental property, there are the obvious things like having the gutters cleared, roofs cleaned, and providing vent and hose bib insulation covers. If you really want to invest in damage prevention due to winter weather, there are many precautions you can take:
- If you live in an area that has prolonged periods of freezing temperatures or your water pipes are exposed to the elements, you may consider having electric warmers installed on your water lines. Standard systems are controlled by a switch, but I recommend upgrading to a temperature activated automatic switch.
- After the first heavy rain, you can have the attic inspected for possible roof leaks that were created during the summer months. A quick roof patch before drywall is damaged or mold has a chance to grow is much more affordable.
- Have all your trees inspected and pruned as necessary. Any trees or limbs at risk of coming down should be dealt with before the ground loosens due to rain, and the winter winds start.
- Make sure that the earth outside your crawl space vents is below the bottom of the vent and the grade slopes away from the structure. A simple build-up of debris and dirt outside a vent can lead to the flooding of your crawlspace, along with expensive mold problems.
- For a higher tech preventative measure, you can install moisture meters under your sinks, by the water heater, behind the fridge, under the dishwasher, and behind the clothes washer. The low-cost versions will set off an alarm that someone must be home to hear. This also relies on your tenants knowing how to turn the water off to the line that is leaking. The higher cost option is connected to a water line shut-off valve so that if the meter detects excess moisture from a leak, it will automatically stop the flow of water to that line.
- Verify that all smoke detectors are in good working order. Christmas trees, decorations, and lights all increase the risk of fires in the home.
This brings us to your tenants. Are you expecting enough from your tenants when it comes to protecting your rental in winter? Ideally, you will have your tenant’s weatherization responsibilities spelled out in the lease, or a weatherization addendum. It would also be a good idea to send out a weatherization reminder a few weeks before you anticipate freezing weather. At IRC Real Estate & Property Management (www.IRCEnterprises.com), we use this opportunity to send our tenants a winter newsletter. We include all their weatherization responsibilities, in addition to some holiday tips, recipes, local holiday events, etc. This has the added benefit of improving the tenants’ relationship with us. There are several things you can require of your tenants during the winter months. Obviously, not all of these responsibilities would be expected of tenants in multi-unit properties, but they are what we expect of our tenants in most of our 1-4 unit rentals.
- Cover all foundation vents. Given that they are inexpensive, I would recommend buying and delivering these to your tenants. Every winter you should verify that the tenant has enough covers. Maybe even give them 1-2 extras, just in case.
- Disconnect all outside hoses, hose splitters, and water features. Then, of course, make sure tenants have enough hose bib insulators to cover all outside faucets.
- Disconnect washing machine hoses and place them in the drain line so that both faucets can be left on at a slow trickle.
- Keep all water inside the unit running at a slow trickle.
- Keep temperature above 62 degrees at all times, even when away from home.
- Familiarize themselves with water shut-off valves.
- Notify you if they will be gone in the winter for more than a couple days. If needed, get their permission or serve a notice of entry to inspect the unit during their absence.
- Lastly, make sure your tenants know who to call in the event of winter damage.
The last area you should focus on is making sure that YOU are prepared to handle any problems that can arise with rental properties in the winter. No matter how much you prepare your property and tenants, there is always a chance you will have an emergency to handle. If you haven’t planned ahead, then best-case scenario is that you spend a few hundred unnecessary dollars on emergency repair labor in the middle of the night. Worst-case scenario is that you can’t fulfill your responsibilities as a landlord and expose yourself to a lawsuit by the tenants. If you complete these tasks before winter hits, you should be prepared to handle any emergency repair that comes your way quickly, at the lowest possible cost:
- Find two general contractors you trust and that have 24-hour emergency repair services available. You will want someone that can patch roofs and is an all around “jack of all trades.”
- Find two licensed plumbers you trust and that have 24-hour emergency repair services available.
- Find two drain clearing companies you trust and that have 24-hour emergency repair services available.
- If you don’t invest in space heaters, find two HVAC contractors you trust and that have 24-hour emergency repair services available.
- Instruct all your emergency repair contractors to limit their after-hours labor to protecting the property from additional damage and making the unit safe for your tenant. Then have them complete the full repair during regular business hours. If your property is protected and your tenant is taken care of, then there is no reason to waste any more money on inflated after-hours labor rates.
- To avoid expensive after-hours HVAC labor rates, we purchased some large electric space heaters for residential use. If heat goes out in the winter, then you are required to have it repaired or provide another heat source ASAP. The cost of you or a handyman delivering some space heaters in the middle of the night is much less than paying a HVAC contractors’ after-hours labor rates. This will make the tenants feel taken care of since you provided heat quickly, and you’ll get to save money by having the HVAC repairs completed during normal business hours. If your rental unit has a wood fireplace or stove, you can also maintain a stockpile of wood to deliver instead of space heaters.
- Lastly, make sure your tenants know how to get a hold of someone to report an emergency repair outside of your normal business hours. Within our company we contract with a call center company that has our after-hours contractors contact information. You could also incentivize one of your contractors to be available 24-hours and coordinate emergency repairs. Or you can simply give your tenants your cell phone number to call and be sure to have the volume turned up to high before you go to sleep.
Winter can be a very scary time of year for a landlord, especially landlords with low-profit margins. If you are willing to put in some work and maybe even a little financial investment, you can avoid most winter emergencies. For those inevitable emergencies, you will be prepared to handle anything that is thrown at you with confidence. Don’t wait until 2:00 a.m. on Christmas morning when a tenant wakes you up with an emergency to find an after-hours contractor. If you get this done before winter and have your 24-hour repair phone numbers easily accessible, you will be back to sleeping soundly after making one phone call. No stress or worrying, just sweet, relaxing dreams, because you can rest assured that your tenants are being taken care of and your rental property is being protected.
Good luck this winter, but don’t wait any longer to get prepared!
Christian Bryant is President of IRC Enterprises (specializing in Property Management, Evictions, & Residential/Commercial Sales for Investors) and is President of Northwest REIA. For more information please visit www.IRCEnterprises.com.