8 smart ways to prepare properties for extreme cold

Amanda Maher
Amanda Maher | 5 min. read

Published on January 24, 2017

Now that the holidays are in the rearview mirror, a new reality has settled in: it’s winter! This is great news for ski bunnies; but for many landlords and property managers, it means bracing for the impact that snowstorms and extreme temperatures can have on rental properties.

Most homeowners learn from experience that it’s important to prepare their homes for the colder months well in advance. However, having never owned their own property, many tenants aren’t thinking about things like frozen pipes and ice dams. This makes it all the more important to proactively prepare properties for extreme cold and sync up with residents—before a cold front is headed your way.

Here are a few critical steps to take before the next arctic blast rolls through.

Start by Talking to Tenants

By this point in the season, you’ve likely already taken standard precautions to winterize your properties, from clearing leaves from gutters to having HVAC systems inspected. However, talking to tenants can provide you with vital insights. For instance, they can tell you about a drafty window or a faucet that acts up during the winter—things that you couldn’t know without living in the unit. This information will be critical in protecting your units from winter damage. If the forecast predicts extreme cold, check in again—they may not remember what you told them at the beginning of the season.

Create a Landlord-Tenant To-Do List

This list should outline the repairs that you’ll make in advance of the next cold bout, like insulating doors and windows or wrapping basement pipes with electric heating cords. It should also lay out your expectations for tenants in the event of a deep freeze, such as letting faucets drip to keep water flowing, keeping the heat above a certain temperature, and leaving cabinet doors open to expose pipes to warm air. You might also ask tenants to turn off valves to the water heater and pipes if they won’t be home during a weather event; that way, if a pipe does burst, it won’t cause flood damage. Make sure that they know exactly what to do and who to contact if an emergency occurs.

Encourage Tenants to Prepare an Emergency Kit

Nasty winter weather can often lead to power outages and frozen pipes; and unless your building has a generator, they should be prepared for extreme cold during these outages. Send residents a notice reminding them to keep necessities on hand like flashlights, batteries, non-perishable food, and blankets for power outages; and bottled water and a hairdryer in the event of frozen pipes. (We’ve found blowtorches much more effective in unfreezing pipes—but you probably don’t want to be doling out blowtorches to tenants.) At a minimum, consider providing rock salt and snow shovels for each of your tenants.

Get Heating Equipment Squared Away

Depending on your lease agreement, you may be responsible for providing tenants with heat and hot water. Be sure that oil and propane tanks are adequately filled, and that gas lines, water heaters, and generators are functioning properly. All fuel-burning equipment should be vented to the outside and kept clear, and chimneys should be cleaned before use. Set guidelines for space heater usage, like never leaving them unattended. Always have functional carbon monoxide detectors and smoke alarms installed. Make sure that tenants understand the dire importance of these precautions, too.

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Keep Fire Extinguishers on Hand

Each unit should have a fire extinguisher, and tenants should know how to use it. Fires spike each winter with people cooking holiday meals and turning to wood fires, candles, and space heaters during the extreme cold. Dry winter air also makes it easier for fires to spread quickly.

Check in with Your Vendors

If you own or manage several rental properties, this is a good time to check in with your contractors—plumbers, electricians, HVAC technicians, snow removal companies, etc. Make sure that contracts are up-to-date, retainers are paid (if necessary), and prices are negotiated before a storm hits. If you wait until the last minute, you’re at the mercy of their pricing during a crisis—and worse, you could be struggling to find a vendor to bail out your tenants.

Review Your Insurance Policies

It’s always a good idea to take a look at your insurance coverage on a regular basis; but for landlords in certain regions, this is especially true heading into the winter. Be sure that your insurance coverage is enough to cover any major structural issues subject to weather damage. For instance, your policy may cover the fair market value of a new roof, but fair market value declines over time through depreciation. Instead, you may want to look at policies that offer replacement cost coverage.

Winterize Your Vehicle

Despite your best efforts to prepare your rental properties for frigid temperatures, there’s always a chance that a problem will arise. It’s important to winterize your car in the event that you need to make an emergency trip to your properties. Check antifreeze levels, replace fuel and air filters, install snow tires, and check your oil level and weight. (Heavier oils tend to congeal in low temperatures.) Don’t forget to put together an emergency car kit that includes a shovel, ice scraper, flashlight, ice melt, emergency flares, water, and a blanket. In addition, keep kitty litter on hand to give your tires traction on icy patches. You might also encourage tenants to do the same, just in case.

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Amanda Maher

Amanda Maher is a self-proclaimed policy wonk who dabbles in real estate law. She holds a B.S. in Political Science and Sociology from Boston University, as well as a master's in Urban and Regional Policy from Northeastern.

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