As the cooler temps roll in, what preventive steps can you take to avoid a financial loss?
Fall and winter are two of the most punishing seasons on your property, so getting an early start is crucial. Though the U.S. boasts a variety of climates, the chief weather concern for most property owners during the fall is colder weather. At some point in the year, most areas will experience a frost or freeze, though it may come earlier for those in the north or at higher elevations. As the cooler temps roll in, what preventive steps can you take to avoid a financial loss?
Phase 1: Outdoor Defense is Crucial
Tidying up the yard is a common fall chore, but it does more than just make a property look presentable to the neighbors. Keeping up your landscape can help you avoid city code violations, property damage and injuries. Key areas for cleanup:
#1: The Yard and Walkways
Fall is the perfect time to manage dead limbs and tree disease. Bare branches make it easier for arborists to assess the health of the tree and prune or use treatments accordingly. Even if your trees look “healthy”, still have them checked annually. Tree damage can soar into the tens of thousands and hauling off the tree is often the financial responsibility of the homeowner.
While you’re out there, inspect your stairs, sidewalks, railings, and other walkways. Slip-and-falls are common lawsuits in the real estate investing world, and they’re often completely preventable. A tumble down the stairs caused by a faulty railing or a slip on a deck could cause long-term injuries to your tenant or one of their guests, so perform frequent checks for hazards such as uneven pavement, deteriorating stairs and loose railings and promptly repair any issues.
Pro Tips: Specify in the lease who is responsible for clearing walks and driveways in inclement weather, and don’t compromise your tenants’ safety with delays to maintenance requests.
#2: Roof and Gutters
Before winter storms arrive, be sure your roof can handle the weather coming its way. Inspect the roof, soffits and fascia boards (see image opposite, upper left). Also check for damage to shingles, nail pops and wood rot.
Then, move on to the gutters. Clean gutters will keep water channeled away from your foundation and the sheetrock inside. Water damage can quickly lead to mold growth, which can be hazardous to your tenants’ health, can be challenging and costly to remediate and is often not covered by insurance.
Pro Tip: Binoculars can provide a safe alternative to climbing a ladder.
#3: Doors, Windows & Other Entry Points
As temperatures change, mice, rats and other rodents start looking for a warm place to nest for the winter. Their homes can create unsanitary conditions and cause damage to wood and wiring. To keep pests at bay, seal or caulk cracks, gaps or holes near baseboards, windows and doors. Cable, plumbing and service entry points should also have a tight seal. Any hole the size of dime or larger may allow rodents to squeeze through.
Investor Bonus: A weather-tight house cuts down on utility expenses.
Don’t forget to download Think Realty’s free Property Maintenance Check lists here, which are customized for every season, so you ensure you’re accounting for the risks of each season.
Phase 2: Indoor Maintenance Protections
If a property is occupied, give proper notice for any maintenance, but don’t leave it to tenants (even good ones) to protect your investment. Vacant properties also have special needs moving into cooler temps. Here are three areas of focus for both occupancy types:
#1: Safety Devices
Smoke and carbon monoxide alarms should be tested monthly, but the annual fall check helps you verify with your own eyes and ears that these items are working properly. Make sure alarms have not been disconnected or removed. Every floor should have one.
The holiday season is peak season for cooking fires, so be sure your rental is protected. Fire extinguishers should be full, properly pressurized and in accessible locations ready for use.
Pro Tip: StoveTop FireStop is another inexpensive tool that can stop cooking fires in their tracks and prevent more costly damage or injuries to the cook and their guests.
Frozen pipes aren’t a problem…until they burst, causing thousands of gallons of water to rush through your property. Thankfully, this damage is easy to prevent. For your occupied properties, insulate pipes on exterior walls. Instruct tenants to open cabinets during cold snaps to let warmer air circulate into those spaces. Leaving faucets on a slow drip may also keep the water moving enough to prevent a freeze.
For vacant properties, winterize them by shutting off the water at the street and draining your plumbing system. Pouring environmentally-safe, biodegradable antifreeze in each of the drains can keep your p-traps (see photo at right), toilets, sinks and tubs from costly damage. Set the heat to at least 55 degrees or even higher in cold snaps. If you don’t feel comfortable doing a full winterization, it is very simple for a professional.
#3: Heating Devices
Dust buildup creates a fire hazard, so clean HVAC systems at least twice a year. Space heaters are also a common cause of house fires, and often tenants aren’t aware of the hazard they present. If allowed in your lease, space heaters should be plugged directly into an outlet, not an extension cord, and have an auto shut-off in case they tip over. Tenants should also keep three feet of clear space around them.
If your property has a fireplace, have the chimney professionally inspected each year before your tenants use it. Creosote buildup is highly combustible and could start a chimney fire.
Pro Tip: You can learn more about chimney care and find a certified pro on the Chimney Safety Institute of America’s (CSIA) website: www.csia.org.