Fight Off the Next Property Fire Before It Sparks

More property fires occur in December, January, and February than at any other time of the year, says the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA). Fires are among the costliest losses we see to investment properties and in the top five losses for frequency. In addition to significant structural damage, fires often lead to serious injuries or in some cases, death of the occupants. For this reason, fire prevention is of the utmost importance.

Fires in investment properties often stem from these five areas:

  1. Cooking
  2. Heating
  3. Clothes Dryers and Dryer Vents
  4. Electrical Systems
  5. Security

COOKING

Entertaining guests can take a cook’s attention away from the meal they are preparing which is most often how a cooking fire occurs. Though statistically the risk for a cooking fire increases around the holidays, any gathering (Super Bowl, anyone?) can increase the risk for a cooking catastrophe at your property. Though you aren’t typically invited to dinner, you can still help tenants avoid a fire through the following:

Regular inspections:

  • Aside from driving by your properties, periodically inspect the interior.
  • Identify and remedy any maintenance items that have cropped up in between visits.
  • Ensure that your tenant isn’t creating a fire hazard with the way they keep the property.
  • Confirm the jobsite is being kept clean and free of fire hazards or other safety issues.

Smoke and CO alarms:

  • Working smoke alarms cut home fire deaths in half (NFPA).
  • Maintaining working smoke alarms are typically part of the fire code, and often a requirement of your insurance policy.
  • Place detectors in every bedroom and outside every sleeping area on each level of the property.
  • For floors without bedrooms, install the alarm in the most utilized room (i.e. the living room or den).
  • Avoid false alarms in kitchens by placing the detector at least ten feet away from any cooking appliance.
  • Make sure tenants haven’t disabled “chirping” alarms and that all alarms are in working order.
  • Change batteries at least twice a year and replace the alarms themselves every 10 years. (Daylight Savings is a great time to do this.)
  • Test alarms monthly.
  • Carbon monoxide alarms are also important – CO is odorless, colorless and tasteless, which is why they call it the “silent killer.”

Fire Extinguishers:

  • Extinguishers can keep a small fire from becoming a larger, more dangerous and destructive one.
  • Multi-purpose extinguishers like ABC or BC types can put out a variety of fires and you might consider a type K extinguisher for the kitchen as they help put out grease fires.
  • Extinguishers should be readily accessible and along normal paths of travel so the occupant can easily grab one in the event of a fire.
  • Place extinguishers close to exits, in all common areas, such as hallways, the living room, kitchen, basement and garage.
  • Show your tenants where extinguishers are located upon move-in and make sure they know how to use them.
  • Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for maintenance.

StoveTop FireStop
This inexpensive fire suppression product can help put out a stove top fire before the cook has time to grab a lid or standard extinguisher. Should a fire occur, StoveTop FireStop is positioned right above the burners and ready to deploy fire suppression powder right onto the flames automatically. There is also a loud “pop” when the container opens which can alert the distracted cook to return to the kitchen and turn off the stove.

HEATING

Many fires we see in occupied properties are related to tenants using space heaters or other alternative heating methods to stay warm in their homes. To reduce this temptation:

  1. Make sure your rentals are heated appropriately – To be considered habitable, some jurisdictions require that a home be kept to a minimum temperature.
  2. Stay on top of regular maintenance – HVAC systems should be inspected before the heater is used each season. If it hasn’t been done already, do it now.
  3. Change furnace filters monthly – Who is responsible for changing filters? If it is your tenant, make sure they are staying on top of this responsibility. Filters can reduce air quality that can lead to health hazards, and excessive dust buildup can also create a fire hazard.
  4. Prohibit the use of the oven as a heating apparatus – Specify in your lease that heating the house with the oven is not allowed and educate tenants on the dangers of doing so, like the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.
  5. Regulate the use of space heaters – If you allow space heaters, they should be newer models that turn off when tipped over. Instruct tenants to keep 3 feet of clear space around the heater, far away from blankets, drapes, anything else that can burn. Heaters should always be plugged directly into the wall outlet and should never be left unattended. Space heaters should NOT be used as the primary heating source in the house.
  6. Maintain chimneys – Your chimney should be inspected before use each year. If you haven’t had it inspected already, instruct your tenants to stop using it until this is done. Creosote and soot buildup can be an extreme fire hazard. The fireplace should always have a screen in place, and tenants should maintain a 3-foot perimeter clear of items that can burn.

CLOTHES DRYERS AND DRYER VENTS

Heavy winter clothing causes lint to build up more quickly in your dryer’s lint trap. If not cleaned out regularly, that buildup can lead to a fire. Avoid a dryer fire through these simple steps:

  1. Instruct tenants to check dryer lint screens in between every load of laundry and clean them frequently.
  2. During scheduled inspections, check the condition of the hose going from the dryer to the exterior vent and the dryer vents themselves. Clear out any blockages or lint buildup that could cause the dryer to overheat.

ELECTRICAL SYSTEMS

During the months with more extreme temperatures, your electrical system will have a higher load placed on it. However, you can avoid any “shocking” fires by doing the following:

  1. Bring your electrical system up to code and check its function prior to anyone moving in. Though older systems with Knob-and-Tube or aluminum wiring may still technically function, it is best to replace the connectors or the entire system. Knob-and-Tube wiring has no ground so it cannot service any three-pronged appliances and can be particularly dangerous where building insulation envelops the wires, states the International Association of Certified Home Inspectors. Aluminum wiring becomes weaker over time at its connection points (i.e. near outlets and other junctions) making them prone to arc or overheat, causing a fire.
  2. Promptly remedy any electrical issues your tenant reports to you. If your tenant leaves you a message about an outlet or lighting fixture sparking (or any other hazard), respond quickly! Be sure anyone who works on your electrical system has the proper credentials including licensing, permits and insurance. The work is more likely to be done correctly, and if something does go wrong, it will protect you from personal liability arising from property damage or worse, any injuries, caused by their work.

SECURITY

If you have a property that is vacant for any number of reasons – waiting to start a remodel, on the market for sale, in-between tenancy – you will need to protect it from intruders. We often associate arson with vacant properties, but other types of vandalism, such as drug activity can also lead to a fire. In colder climates, someone seeking shelter from the elements may start a fire to keep warm, and not always in the fireplace! To protect vacant properties:

  1. Board up and secure properties that are expected to have long vacancies without work being done. If you won’t be able to start the renovation process for a while on a rehab project, board it up! FEMA has a great guide to help you with a standard plywood board-up. Depending upon the jurisdiction, you may be required to use clear composite board-up materials, so follow all local ordinances. Aside from the composite types, several companies make metal screens as well.
  2. Install a security system. The easiest target on the block loses, so make sure yours is the more difficult one to breach. If your business model includes a lot of rehab projects, select an alarm system that is portable like a tattletale alarm. Your defense should also include sturdy locks and door reinforcement. Consider reinforcing your exterior doors with Door Armor and don’t forget to secure basement windows. They often provide an easy access point into the house and basements often contain expensive housing components like water heaters, the furnace, copper pipes and wiring.
  3. Let the appearance of your house send the message that it’s cared for and regularly maintained. In other words, you want thieves and vandals to feel that anyone could stop by at any time and catch them in the act. Keep the yard cut and tidied. Trim back trees and shrubs that block views of the house and provide thieves places to hide. Don’t let mail and advertisements build up in the mailbox and collect newspapers from the driveway. A well-lit exterior can also discourage thieves from approaching your house at night. Motion detector lights are always a good addition, just be sure to place them at a height where they can’t be easily dismantled. Lastly, implement a lighting plan for the interior too – timers can be a good solution there.
  4. Visit your property frequently. If you neglect visiting your property, it’s almost guaranteed something bad will happen to it. Of course, you can’t be there 24/7, but you can solicit neighbors to keep an eye on anything they see. Cameras can augment your security strategy too. Regardless of these other eyes, drop by regularly to make sure things are still secure. If your property manager handles this monitoring task, be sure they are actually doing it!

If you pay attention to these 5 key areas and implement strategies for fire prevention, the rest of 2019 may be a little less stressful and a lot more profitable!

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Fire, Safety & Maintenance, Seasonal & Weather Tips