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Years ago, I leased a small second-floor apartment over a detached garage. They don’t let you do that in my town anymore. I think it has to do with updated building codes and safety rules. Anyway, like most college students, I abandoned my apartment over the holidays for a trip home. I saw what I thought was a good opportunity to save on my utility bills, and turned the heat way down.

Not surprisingly, when I returned, a fountain had formed in one of the garage bays. Freezing temperatures had burst a pipe, sending water gushing across the concrete floor. The event did not endear me to my landlord and, needless to say, I didn’t get my deposit back.

Things could have been worse; much, much worse, such as the $100,000 in damage caused to a Detroit home in 2015. A water pipe on the third floor burst, and water flooded the house, causing the second floor to collapse onto the first floor. Sheets of water spilled from windows, forming giant icicles. It was the sort of catastrophe that occurs with properties in climates where temperatures get well below freezing – and stay there. The Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety estimates that frozen pipes are among the biggest culprits for property damage during cold weather. They estimate that burst pipes typically cost thousands to repair.

But it doesn’t have to happen. A little foresight and planning can prevent such emergencies. Simply put, a rental agreement can include terms that prevent a clueless tenant from causing serious destruction. And a winter checklist can keep a landlord on top of cold weather maintenance.

Tenants who haven’t been homeowners may not know how to take precautions in cold weather. They need explicit instructions to minimize risk to the property. Most tenants would also be unprepared to pay for repairs when they are held responsible for damages. As for the landlord, knowing that a tenant will have to pay for repairs is cold comfort in the midst of dealing with a flooded property. The landlord is still faced with scheduling emergency repairs. A unit without running water is considered uninhabitable, so repairs would have to occur quickly. Collecting the money from a tenant who doesn’t have it could bring another set of problems.

This is the time of year to plan for winter’s effects on your rentals, whether it’s insulating pipes, setting the thermostat, sealing furnace ducts, or tuning up the snow blower. As noted by Chicago blogger The Urban Landlady, if your unit will be vacant during winter, take extra precautions now to prevent disasters. Then, add clear terms to your leases on cold weather care of the property – and what will happen if the tenant slacks off.

Who pays when things break?

Questions on who is accountable for rental property damages often come up for the first time after something is destroyed. Obviously, a deliberate effort by a tenant to wreck the unit puts the fault on him or her. In other cases, the lease agreement should be perfectly clear on who is responsible for maintenance. A typical lease agreement states that if the damage is the result of a tenant’s neglect, then the tenant is responsible. If the lease fails to address the issue of damages, or is too vague, it could be up to a court to decide who pays. A judgement could require damages to be split between the parties.

The landlord has a responsibility to caution tenants about known property issues. For instance, months after I moved out of my garage apartment, I learned that the pipes there had repeatedly frozen. That’s because tenants were usually students, and students usually left over winter break, and they usually turned down the heat before they left. The landlord could have saved himself (and tenants) money and hassle by stating in the lease that a minimum temperature must be maintained at the unit, and that tenants would be on the hook for repairs.

Landlords will also want to address potential hazards from the use of supplemental heating during winter months. Portable heating units could be expressly prohibited; or, the landlord could permit UL-tested, electric space heaters with tip-over safety switches, while banning portable kerosene heaters.

The lease agreement is the official guidebook on who is responsible for what. Most landlords expect tenants to keep the rental clean and perform routine maintenance, thus minimizing the likelihood that damages will occur. For instance, stovetops that are kept clean are unlikely to catch fire, and bathtub drains routinely cleared of hair usually remain clog-free, and so on. Some leases have tenants cover the cost of repairs up to specific dollar amount. Others state that the tenant must report all needed repairs.

Also, in order to minimize legal challenges from tenants, landlords must be ready to show proof that tenants were advised on how to maintain the property, and whether they were responsible for repairs. That way, if damage occurs as a result of tenant negligence, the landlord has a strong case for passing on repair bills.

Protect your rental from winter damage

A lease agreement should require tenants to maintain a clean rental, and to alert the landlord immediately when repairs are needed. It should also set very specific rules on monitoring systems that the landlord knows are prone to cold weather damage when neglected – such as plumbing in cold weather.

Winter brings special maintenance issues; some are routine, while others may come up just once a year. For instance, icy walks must be cleared and consistent heating must be maintained throughout the season. During deep-freezes and storms with heavy snow accumulation, it may be necessary to remove snow from rooftops, or manage without power for a day or two. Precautions taken in the event of power outages can be as simple as having candles and matches on hand, or as complex as stocking bottled water and canned food, and having extra blankets for warmth.

Specifically, a lease could require the landlord or tenant to take these and other measures by a certain date:  

  • Turn off all outside faucets and drain hoses.
  • Wrap heat tape around pipes in unheated rooms, such as attic and basement.
  • Close air vents and lower or install storm windows.
  • Remove window air conditioning units.
  • Check seals on exterior doors.
  • Check carbon monoxide and smoke detector batteries.
  • Clean and inspect fireplaces; and clean air circulation passages for gas fireplaces.
  • Keep attic and porch doors closed.

The lease could instruct tenants to follow property care rules throughout winter:

  • Maintain heat at 55 degrees or warmer throughout rental unit.
  • Remove snow and ice from driveway and walks within 48 hours of accumulation. (Some towns require snow removal within 24 hours.)
  • Contact landlord if there is a loss of power or if ice dams form around drains; and, if more than four feet of fresh snow accumulates on roof. (Packed snow and ice weigh more than fresh snow and accumulation should not exceed two feet or four inches, respectively.)
  • Monitor National Weather Service alerts.
  • Immediately alert landlord, or call a plumber, if a faucet is opened and no water runs out. This usually indicates that a pipe has frozen. 

Weather-related care tips don’t have to be limited to winter. In warmer climate, it will be just as important to list specific chores in the lease. Last summer, for instance, one California landlord was crestfallen to discover that a beautiful, mature orange tree had withered and died because the tenant failed to water the tree. Lawn maintenance was listed in the lease as a tenant responsibility and specified mowing, pruning and weeding, but watering was not specified. The landlord would have had a difficult time seeking damages for the lost tree.

What if I forgot to add winter maintenance to my lease?

If you haven’t assigned specific cold weather chores to the tenant, you may be able to amend the existing lease to add winter care terms. A lease amendment changes the original legal rental agreement, and must be signed by both parties to be enforceable. The tenant doesn’t have to agree to substantial changes to a lease, however, so the landlord may decide to negotiate a substantial change. For instance, if the amendment calls for the existing tenant to remove all snow, the landlord may offer a rent reduction. When the time for a lease renewal rolls around, the landlord should include winter maintenance responsibilities in the new agreement.

Ultimately, the landlord is responsible for who performs maintenance and when. Winter doles out heavy-duty lessons when a homeowner overlooks proper care – whether a rental is occupied or not. As The Urban Landlady notes, “I fully understand the temptation to try to save on heating costs by choosing not to run the furnace in an empty unit.  But this is a gamble where you can lose big. It’s not worth it,” she says. So, if prepping water pipes and snow-shoveling aren’t your thing, enlist a professional. Make a cold weather checklist for yourself, pull it out each autumn, and follow it.


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