Many regions of the U.S. have already received their first snows and freezes, but you can still fortify your “castles” against the coming cold. In this two-part article series, we’ll look at four winter perils from which you’ll need to shield your properties. In Part 1, we address ways to protect occupied properties and next month, we will address vacant properties and renovation projects. Let’s get started.

Water Damage

One of the most frequent winter losses we see at investment properties are burst pipes. The amount of catastrophic damage a water leak can do in just minutes can be astounding. Aside from damaging a tenant’s belongings (for which they may hold you responsible), a pipe burst can ruin sheetrock, trim, flooring and often leads to mold growth if the damaged areas are not quickly dried out. Though it may take a bit of effort, the steps to preventing a burst pipe are simple and can help you avoid an emergency maintenance call followed by an expensive water remediation bill.

Insulate pipes, especially those on exterior walls. Don’t forget water lines that lead to a garage sink or that run to your hose on the outside of the house. Hose bibb covers can also help prevent outdoor spigots from freezing.

Also, remember that insulation does not generate heat. Make sure your HVAC system is in good working order and heats the whole house adequately. If you haven’t done an annual check-up of your HVAC system yet, get one scheduled before your tech’s schedule fills up!

Lastly, your tenants can be instrumental in preventing a freeze. Before a cold snap, remind them to:

  1. Open cabinet doors below sinks to allow warmer air to circulate through those areas.
  2. Leave faucets on a slow drip. Allowing water to continuously flow through the pipes may help prevent it from freezing.
  3. Keep the heat above 55 degrees. Some may be tempted to save on a heating bill by turning the thermostat down, but then may also bring the property back up to temperature using space heaters or may even use the oven as a heating source. Both can be dangerous ways to heat a home. We will discuss that more later.

Fire Damage

About as frequent as water losses, fires are among the costliest losses we see to investment properties. In the process of burning the property, fires often lead to serious injuries or in some cases, death of the occupants as well. For this reason, fire prevention is of the utmost importance. Though fires can start in a variety of ways, two types of fires are top of the list when it comes to winter. What are they and how can they be prevented?

Cooking Fires

More cooking fires occur on Thanksgiving than any other day of the year. Following close behind are Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. (National Fire Protection Association) Entertaining guests can take a cook’s attention away from the large meal they are preparing which is most often how a cooking fire occurs – distraction that leaves food unattended on the stove top. Grease fires can also happen if a pan gets too hot in a cook’s absence. How to avoid a cooking fire since you aren’t usually a dinner guest?

  1. Regular inspections – these give you an opportunity to make sure there aren’t any maintenance items that your tenant hasn’t already reported to you. It also helps you to ensure that your tenant isn’t creating a fire hazard with the way they keep the property.
  2. Smoke and CO alarms – maintaining working smoke alarms are typically part of the fire code, and often a requirement of your insurance policy. At your regular inspections, make sure tenants haven’t disabled these and that they are in working order. Change batteries at least twice a year and replace the alarms themselves every 10 years. Working smoke alarms cut home fire deaths in half (NFPA). Carbon monoxide alarms are also important for keeping your tenants safe. CO is odorless, colorless and tasteless, which is why they call it the “silent killer.”
  3. Fire Extinguishers – along with alarms, make sure you have extinguishers in all common areas, such as hallways, the living room, kitchen, basement and garage. Follow the manufacturer’s instructions for maintenance and make sure your tenants know how to use them. Extinguishers can keep a small fire from becoming a larger, more dangerous and destructive one.
  4. 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.
  5. Share this cooking safety checklist with your tenants: 10 Quick Cooking Tips for a Safe Thanksgiving

Related Reading: Cooking Fires: The Most-Preventable Household Killer

Heating Fires

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 – Some jurisdictions require that a home be kept to a certain temperature for housing to be considered “habitable.”
  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 them? If it is your tenant, make sure they are staying on top of this responsibility. It can impact the air quality, but more importantly, can create a fire hazard.
  4. Ban using ovens to heat the house – 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 CO poisoning.
  5. Regulate the use of space heaters – If you allow space heaters, they should be newer with a safety feature that turns the heater off if it is tipped over. Instruct tenants to keep 3 feet of clear space around the heater. They should also be kept far away from blankets, drapes, anything that can burn and should never be left unattended.
  6. Maintain chimneys – Your chimney should be inspected before use each year. If you haven’t had it inspected already, instruct your tenants to push the pause button on using it until this is done. Creosote and soot buildup can be an extreme fire hazard. The fireplace should also have a screen in place and a 3-foot perimeter kept clear of items that can burn (rugs, etc.)

Related Reading: 5 Ways to Evade a Fire in the Fourth Quarter

Liability Issues

With the potential of increased foot traffic during the holidays, it is crucial that you eliminate any potential slip-and-fall hazards. Neither you or your tenant will be pleased if Granny Ruth ends up with a broken hip because she had no railing to help her up the three front steps to your rental. Though you should always keep up with maintenance items like these to avoid injuries year-round, the risk this time of year can increase substantially which could mean the potential for multiple lawsuits with your name on them. To avoid a liability issue this winter:

  1. Make sure all walkways, driveways and stairs are in good repair – no uneven surfaces, no loose handrails.
  2. Specify in the lease who is responsible for clearing walks and driveways in inclement weather. If this is your property manager’s job, check to make sure that it is actually getting done. If this task falls to your tenant, be sure they understand the importance of keeping up with this simple item.
  3. Specify in the lease where guests are to park. It will keep guests safer and could help you avoid potential fines as the property owner.
  4. Have tenant contact you if they discover any hazardous conditions:

· Wires protruding from walls or ceiling – electric shock or fire hazard
· Missing light switch/outlet plates – electric shock hazard
· Broken stairs/loose or missing handrails – injury hazard
· Leaky pipes – water damage to property and possessions
· Broken windows – safety hazard
· Exposed nails – injury hazard
· Flickering lights – electric shock or fire hazard
· Mold/mildew – health hazard

Related Reading: 10 Tips to Help Eliminate Holiday Liabilities

Security Issues

Did you just move a tenant out of your rental? Did they leave on good terms or was it through an eviction? Either way, your property will need protection in between your prior renter and the next one. Vacant properties can invite theft, vandalism, drug activity or trespassing. You don’t need my help to imagine all the destruction that can happen in your absence. What can you do to keep your property secure during the winter?

Help your tenant make a graceful exit through Cash-for-Keys. If things go south this winter (yep, that’s a pun), Cash-for-Keys may help your renter get to their next living situation more quickly and lessen any potential animosity they could have had toward you. Cash-for-Keys may also be cheaper than paying an attorney for an eviction. You can read more about Cash-for-Keys HERE.

Closely monitor the property during and after move-out. If it has been a rough go with your renter, you may need to monitor the property during the actual move-out. Depending upon the situation, you may even want to have the local sheriff present to assist you. For renters who have had a smooth tenancy, you may only need to do a final walk-through, but being present to view the property one last time together can ensure that all keys are returned and the door is locked safely behind them.

Monitoring the property more closely during its vacancy is important. An evicted renter may be tempted to come back and damage the property once their belongings are out. If you are fortunate to not have that concern, there may be others in the neighborhood looking for a place to find shelter or hide illegal drug activity. Make sure you or your property manager drive by on a regular basis, keep the mailbox clear and keep the yard tidy. Getting the neighbors involved as a second or third pair of eyes can also be extremely helpful. If it will be a long duration between renters, you may need to board up the property, but even then make sure the condition of your property sends a message that it is being looked after. Lastly, layer your security with good lighting, door and window reinforcement and an alarm. Do whatever you can to encourage thieves and vandals to move down the block to a more vulnerable target.

Related Reading: 8 Great Ways to Protect Vacant & Renovation Properties

Stay Tuned

For more tools to protect your investment this season, check out our other articles under the Seasonal category and stay tuned for Part 2 on protecting Vacant and Renovation properties. As always, our best to your investing!