As a landlord or rental property owner, being prepared for unforeseen emergencies is paramount to your success. When you handle emergency situations efficiently, you will keep high-quality tenants, minimize damages, and ultimately generate the highest profits from your investment. Let’s explore proactive strategies to handle emergency maintenance for landlords, including how to handle specific issues, prepare for emergencies, and prevent them.
What Is Considered Emergency Maintenance?
Before we get into handling maintenance emergencies, it’s important to define what an emergency situation entails. Maintenance emergencies are issues in an apartment or rental property that require immediate attention to ensure the safety and habitability of the property. Unlike typical maintenance needs, which can be scheduled and attended to within a few days, emergencies can require after-hours maintenance service.
A few emergency maintenance examples include:
- Frozen or burst pipes
- Broken water lines
- Gas leaks or broken gas lines
- No heat during cold seasons or climates (generally under 50 degrees)
- No air conditioning (AC) during hot seasons or climates (generally above 90 degrees)
- Power outage, sparks, or exposed wires
- No hot water
- Broken locks
- Insect or animal infestation
- Intruder break-in
- Carbon monoxide
Situations like a fire or flooding are obvious after-hours maintenance emergencies, but others aren’t so clear-cut. Defining what is considered an emergency repair for a rental property can sometimes be difficult (e.g., broken appliances or a clogged toilet). Although they may be inconvenient for tenants, these types of maintenance needs are not necessarily emergencies.
Types of Maintenance Emergencies & How to Handle Them
For landlords and renters, emergency maintenance issues are distressing, inconvenient, and disruptive. From burst pipes to power outages, these crises are always unexpected and require immediate action. In fact, real estate investors or landlords are legally responsible for addressing these issues within a certain time frame and ensuring their tenants’ safety and well-being. However, you must be aware of the specific laws in your area, so visit Landlord-Tenant Laws by State: A Complete Landlord’s Guide for more details.
1. Plumbing Emergencies
- Examples: Burst pipes, frozen pipes, broken water lines, no hot water, backed-up sewer
- Legal time frame: About 24-48 hours
Plumbing emergencies include sudden and major issues like a burst pipe, water coming into the house, or having a sewer back up into tubs. These issues can make a home or apartment uninhabitable, so it’s important to address them immediately. With any kind of leak, start by shutting off the water supply to the house or specific fixtures. It’s best to call a licensed plumber to evaluate the problem’s source and repair it thoroughly and quickly.
However, there are many plumbing issues that are not emergencies, like a dripping faucet, a clogged toilet (if there are multiple toilets), clogged drains, or slow-draining sinks and bathtubs. While you should communicate with your tenants about these issues, they should be aware that they do not constitute after-hours service.
- Examples: Smoke, fire, significant fire hazards
- Legal time frame: Immediately
In the event of a fire, both renters and landlords should immediately evacuate and call firefighters to stop the fire as quickly as possible. The landlord’s responsibility increases in the aftermath of the event, when they are legally obligated to assess the damages, ensure the property’s structural integrity, and make any necessary repairs or renovations to restore habitability. This includes coordinating with insurance providers, fire investigators, and local authorities.
This is arguably one of the most difficult emergency maintenance issues for landlords because there are so many different factors, and the damage can be severe. It’s extremely important to know all the laws related to fire damages in your state when you buy your first rental property. This will help you proactively prepare for a fire, like choosing the right rental property insurance.
Pro tip: In general, landlords are required to have working smoke alarms in all rental units. Because smoke alarms are so instrumental in stopping house fires quickly, there are even some government programs that will provide smoke detectors for free. Ensure you install smoke detectors on every level of each property or unit and that the batteries are changed every six months.
3. Electrical Emergencies
- Examples: Power outages, sparks, exposed wires, electric shock, tripping breakers
- Legal time frame: About 24-48 hours
The laws around electrical emergencies aren’t as cut and dry as others since electrical issues can range widely in severity. For example, an outlet that produces sparks is an emergency that needs immediate attention, while a burnt-out lightbulb is not an emergency. In addition, a widespread power outage due to stormed or damaged power lines is not a landlord’s responsibility.
It’s important to have a clear, open line of communication with your tenants so that you are aware of the need for emergency maintenance services immediately. You also need to clearly define what’s considered emergency maintenance in an apartment so that tenants understand which issues don’t require your immediate attention.
4. Air Quality Emergencies
- Examples: Gas leaks, carbon monoxide, mold infestation or asbestos, smoke
- Legal time frame: Immediately
Renters who suspect issues like gas leaks, carbon monoxide, or smoke should evacuate the property immediately and contact their landlord and emergency services. Due to the potential health risks of even limited exposure, air quality issues require immediate attention from landlords or property owners. This includes consulting with a licensed professional, conducting a thorough inspection, and remediating the problem.
Pro tip: Like smoke alarms, having functioning carbon monoxide detectors in every rental unit is a requirement for landlords in most states. However, it’s wise to have an addendum in your lease agreement that states the renters will not tamper with the detector. In addition, the detector batteries should be changed once every six months.
5. Heating, Ventilation & Air Conditioning (HVAC) Emergencies
- Examples: No heat during cold weather, no air conditioning (AC) during hot weather, thermostat malfunction
- Legal time frame: Varies; often within 14-30 days
A common question from tenants is, “Is not having heat an emergency?” The answer depends on a few factors, like the climate, weather, and time of year. An HVAC issue may not be a priority in mild temperatures but gets escalated to an emergency if particularly cold or hot temperatures.
Like electrical issues, it can be confusing to determine if these types of maintenance issues are emergencies or day-to-day maintenance needs. However, even if the weather is mild, attending to issues quickly will help build a strong tenant-landlord relationship and minimize tenant horror stories.
6. Security Emergencies
- Examples: Broken locks, break-ins, vandalism
- Legal time frame: Ranges from immediate to 14 days
Security is defined by the Department of U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) as an important element of a habitable property or rental unit. If security breaches occur, your tenants should act quickly by contacting you and/or law enforcement. The legal time frame required for landlords to respond to security issues can range wildly, with states like California requiring immediate action and other states not providing a required time range. However, these issues directly impact your tenants’ safety, so they should be a high priority regardless of your state laws.
Emergency Maintenance for Landlords: Strategies & Preparations
Every rental property owner or manager hopes they won’t have to deal with property emergencies, but it is critical to be prepared for them. Preparing for emergency maintenance issues will make it as easy as possible to remedy the problem quickly, efficiently, and with as little stress and financial loss as possible. Here are five important ways for landlords to prepare for maintenance emergencies:
Strategy 1: Invest in a Streamlined Communication System
One of the most important elements of successfully owning or managing a rental property is being easily reachable for tenants. It’s ideal for tenants to have multiple ways to contact you with day-to-day questions and concerns, like phone, email, and text, and a streamlined system for maintenance requests. This is even more important in emergency situations, so the system you use should have specific procedures for emergencies or urgent requests.
One of the best ways to establish a strong communication strategy is with property management software. These systems include many important features for landlords, like tenant screening, online rent collection, tools to determine how much to charge for rent, and an automated maintenance tracking system.
Learn about more software options in our guide to the 8 Best Property Management Software for Small Business.
Strategy 2: Curate a List of Prepared Emergency Maintenance Numbers
Don’t wait until you need an emergency plumber at 10 p.m. to look up services in your area. If you don’t already know emergency service providers for each type of potential emergency, start researching them immediately. Print a copy of this list for yourself and for each of your tenants. Over time, building a network of trusted contractors, plumbers, electricians, and other service providers will minimize the stress involved with every potential emergency.
If you already have renters who don’t have an emergency contact list, start by instantly downloading this free template. You can print the PDF and handwrite all important contact data, or open it in Canva and customize it with your branding.
Strategy 3: Create Well-defined Process & Expectations for Tenants
If an emergency occurs, tenants shouldn’t be confused about how to handle the situation. Emergency procedures should be well-defined and clearly presented to all tenants before they move in. These procedures should include details about the communication process and expectations for before and after-hours emergencies, the tenant’s rights and responsibilities, and the landlord’s rights and responsibilities. For owners of apartment buildings, a fire exit plan should be displayed in every unit.
Ideally, this will be discussed in person and given to tenants in a digital or hard copy format. Setting clear expectations upfront can prevent misunderstandings and expedite the resolution of maintenance issues.
Strategy 4: Purchase Landlord & Renter’s Insurance
Maintenance emergencies increase a landlord’s expenses, sometimes costing tens of thousands of dollars. Without insurance, one emergency can end up turning your investment into a major financial problem. If you own a rental property, make sure you set the investment up for success by getting strong landlord insurance to protect your business.
Strategy 5: Schedule Preventative Maintenance Tasks
The most ideal way to deal with emergency maintenance for landlords is by preventing it completely. One survey of homeowners found that up to 65% of property maintenance issues were preventable with ongoing maintenance. As a landlord, make sure you plan ahead for ongoing maintenance needs in each of your properties or rental units.
Your maintenance plan should include items like cleaning HVAC systems, checking window and door locks, and keeping gutters clean. To start with a schedule immediately, use our free Essential Rental Property Maintenance Checklist for Landlords.
Strategy 6: Hire a Property Manager
If you want to offload as much stress as possible, consider hiring a property management company to run your rental property or properties. Property managers specialize in all aspects of property maintenance, including communicating with clients and handling emergencies promptly and efficiently. While you should still ensure that you and your tenants are prepared for an emergency, hiring a property manager is the best method of removing the stress and responsibility from your plate.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
The duration of emergency maintenance varies depending on a few factors like the nature and severity of the emergency. Some emergencies, like a fire, burst pipe, or electrical hazard, require immediate attention and can be resolved within a matter of hours. However, more complex issues can take longer to address, requiring anywhere between days and weeks to resolve. Each state has a specific time frame in which landlords are required to respond to different emergencies, so make sure you learn about the law in your location.
The maintenance procedures differ in almost every rental property. Many apartment complexes have a maintenance team on staff and strive to provide 24/7 emergency maintenance services. However, there are many apartment buildings and multifamily properties that do not have maintenance professionals on-site.
An emergency repair is generally defined as any issue that prevents a property from being safely habitable. Examples include gas leaks, an intruder break-in, malfunctioning heat or cooling systems, or leaking water.
It is vital to be well-prepared to handle emergency maintenance for your tenants. By understanding common maintenance issues, legal requirements for rentals, and the right tools and strategies to handle emergencies, you can navigate urgent events efficiently, minimizing disruptions and ensuring the well-being of everyone involved.