LANDLORD OBLIGATIONS IN THE WINTER
© Copyright 2014 Landlord.com
By Bob Cain
Copyright 2005 Cain Publications, Inc., used by permission
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 some parts of the country.
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 aren’t going to expose your investment
property to the weather, are you? 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:
Take the cost out of their security deposit
Evict them for damaging the unit (and then take it out of their
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
The “good working
order” part 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.
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 deduct 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 them more weather tight, but following FHA appraisal guidelines would
certainly be an adequate standard.
Equipment in Good Working Order
This can be a big concern
during the winter. During cold weather space heaters may get plugged in
and left on when people are gone. Making sure that your electrical system
is in good working order can be extremely important for preventing fires.
If you aren’t sure that it’s adequate, best call in an electrician.
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
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
The Federal Emergency
Management Agency (FEMA) has these suggestions about fireplaces and wood
Have your 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 fireplaces. 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 your 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.
Cain is a nationally-recognized speaker and writer on property management
and real estate issues. For a free sample copy of the Rental Property
Reporter call 800-654-5456 or visit their web site at