This could happen to you: You manage a high-rise condo in Florida. You have a tenant that takes the family on a month-long road trip to visit relatives in New York while the kids are out of school for the summer.
What else happens in summer? All of the snowbirds go back to their homes in New England and the Midwest. You could have several units unoccupied all through the summer. In some buildings, close to half of your units could be unoccupied.
But in Florida, summer is also hurricane season, which runs from June through November. You check the weather and find out that a Category 4 storm is due to hit your building in 48 hours. You’ve got some work to do.
What to Do with Tenants on Extended Absences
Occasionally, you may be faced with a tenant or resident owner who is absent for much of the year. This is common in Florida; Alaska; along the coasts in North and South Carolina; and in ski communities, resort areas, and beach towns all over the United States. It’s also quite common in military communities, where single soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen occasionally have lengthy exercises, sea cruises, and deployments that could cause them to leave their homes for days, weeks, or months.
Usually tenants on extended absences aren’t a problem, but property managers should have a plan to collect on-time rent payments; deal with maintenance matters that may come up; and, of course, be alert to the elevated risk of burglary, squatters, and vagrants that presents itself when a residence goes unoccupied for weeks or months at a time.
Tenants on Extended Absences: Lease Provisions
The best time to address these issues is when you draft the lease. Ideally, your lease agreement should include a clause that requires the tenant to notify you of any absences expected to exceed 10 days or two weeks—however long best reflects your comfort level.
Alaska law, as an example, mandates that leases require tenants to notify landlords if they expect to be gone for a period of 7 days or longer (Section 34.03.150). Alaska law also allows landlords to recover 1.5 times the actual damages incurred from the tenant if they willfully fail to provide the legally required 7-day notice to the landlord (Section 34.03.230).
Kentucky has a similar law, though not every county has adopted this provision. In Kentucky, landlords can enter a unit “at times reasonably necessary” during any time that the tenant is absent for 7 days or longer.
Your lease agreement should expressly state that you as the landlord or landlord’s representative reserve the right to enter the unit to make emergency repairs or take steps to prevent damage to the property.
Some examples of things you may have to do:
- Shut off water before a big freeze to prevent pipes from bursting
- Inspect plumbing after a freeze or repair burst pipes
- Secure deck furniture ahead of a hurricane
- Inspect for damage after fires, floods, or earthquakes
- Inspect for leaky pipes
- Replace water-damaged flooring or drywall
A notification clause can protect you and your tenants in another way: You will be less likely to make a mistaken assumption that your tenant has abandoned the property if you don’t see them for a few weeks.
Several states specifically allow landlords to enter the dwelling in the event that the tenant is absent for an extended period of time. These states include:
- New Mexico
- Rhode Island
Nearly all states have statutes specifically allowing landlords to enter a dwelling to deal with a maintenance emergency. The ones that don’t usually have no statutes at all governing landlord access, so it comes down to the lease agreement.
A lot rides on the reasonability of the access as well. While it’s unlikely that most tenants will go to court over this, if they do, you should be on firm ground so long as you can show that you entered the apartment or dwelling to take care of a bona fide maintenance emergency—or to prevent one.
In Florida, however, some recent case law places a burden on property managers and condo boards to prove that an entrance is necessary—so be prepared to prove your case if a tenant objects to your entry.
Insurance Considerations for Tenants on Extended Absences
If a unit or dwelling is expected to be vacant for 60 days or more, it’s time to contact your insurance agent. If you’re the owner, you’ll need to arrange for special ‘unoccupied home’ coverage for your property. This will cost a bit more than standard coverage, but the premium reflects the elevated risk of vagrancy, pest infestation, plumbing issues, and other problems that tend to arise when a home is vacant for an extended period of time.
In the insurance world, definitions matter: If the tenant still has their belongings in the dwelling, it’s unoccupied. If the tenant removes their belongings, it’s vacant. Make sure that you get the right kind of coverage—and build the cost into your rent, if you know ahead of time that your tenant will be spending part of the year away.Learn about property managers' rights when tenants are on extended absences on the #BuildiumBlog. Click To Tweet
Management Considerations for Tenants on Extended Absences
There are some condos and communities where up to half of the residents are absent for half of the year. This poses a problem for condo associations and boards, whose members may not be on-site much of the time.
Take advantage of technology. For example, many board members may be able to dial in by videoconference. Make sure that your bylaws allow this—for example, in case someone challenges a vote because a quorum of board members wasn’t physically present in the room at the time.
You may want to create an intranet or other website to keep residents up-to-date on board issues, upcoming meetings and votes, etc.; and to allow residents to make arrangements for mail-in and proxy votes.
Maintenance Considerations for Tenants on Extended Absences
Managers in colder climates have to be particularly proactive in creating and enforcing winterization policies and procedures. For example, you will likely want to stipulate that residents must drain all of their pipes to prevent freezing, and that they set the thermostat to a minimum temperature of 55 degrees. Battery-operated thermostats can fail, so smart landlords will reserve the right to enter the unit to check on thermostats, power status, running water, and heating fuel.
In Florida, Georgia, and the rest of the Gulf Coast, tenants on extended absences should leave the air conditioning on in the summer to prevent mold build-up. Staff may have to enter the units to replace filters and check condensate lines so they don’t flood the unit—another reason that the lease agreement should give landlords or boards some access rights to handle required maintenance.
If your property operates on a common pest control contract, your lease should spell out that if the resident is not there, the manager will go into the unit with the exterminator periodically. Otherwise, you run the risk of a pest infestation building for weeks or months and affecting other units.
In some cases where you have units that may only be occupied for a few months out of the year, your property management staff may have to physically take care of some of these winterization steps themselves. Take a look at your condo or HOA CC&Rs and ensure that you have the property owners on record as granting the right to your staff to take these actions, and that your property management fees are adequate to provide the man-hours necessary to carry out the work.
Some northern condominiums create an owner’s manual with a checklist of winterization or summerization tips and procedures. Owners must agree to do everything on the checklist on a seasonal basis—especially before leaving for an extended period of time. The same could apply to renters, as well—just create an easy-to-read lease addendum.
Self-Defense Tips for Landlords Entering Unoccupied Units
Any time that a landlord or property manager enters a dwelling without the owner present, there’s a risk that the tenant could accuse the landlord or property manager of causing damage or theft. For this reason, consider taking a video of the entire time that you are in the unit. Also, don’t send staff in by themselves. In some cases, consider an off-duty police officer or a board member to accompany a staffer who has to enter a unit for whatever reason.
In the event of a forecasted weather event, such as a blizzard, ice storm, or hurricane, try getting the tenant to give a written “OK” for your staff to go in and secure the unoccupied unit. Most tenants will gladly give their permission, since you are safeguarding their property as well as your own!
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