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Updated: May 28, 2021

Original Publication Date: January 17, 2020

This article was originally published in RE Journals.

From frigid temperatures and piles of snow to burst pipes and icy sidewalks, danger can lurk around every corner of a Chicago apartment property during winter. But, with some advance planning and a focus on prevention, property managers can get through the winter season without incident.

According to the Insurance Information Institute, based on claims data from 2014 through 2018, three of the top five causes of insurance claims for commercial properties were water and freezing damage, fire and slips and falls. Clearly, here in Chicago and in other metros with severe winter weather, lack of due care on the part of a property manager could lead to injury from any one of these causes. But preparation gives managers the greatest chances of succeeding when things go wrong.

Here’s what property managers need to avoid doing in order to keep both apartment residents and the asset itself safe during the winter.

1. Don’t get caught unprepared

Managers must be proactive and have a plan in place well before bad weather hits. That plan should cover, at a minimum, snow and ice removal, roof safety, what to do in case of a power outage, smoke detector maintenance and the use of space heaters by residents who want temperatures toastier than usual. Even Christmas trees could become a fire hazard if they are allowed to dry inside a unit, so policies should be in place to handle those as well.

But a plan is worthless unless team members receive training on implementation, so staff should be educated on all aspects of maintaining the property—even basics such as the location of utility shut-offs. And, of course, all preventive maintenance on the building—the boiler, plumbing systems, roofs, gutters, etc. —should be completed by August or September each year.

One last tip: Make sure you have enough ice melt on hand at the beginning of the season and that all snowplow contracts are in place by the end of September each year.

2. Don’t keep residents in the dark

Communication with residents is essential and a two-way street. Management must be able to reach residents, even if there is a power outage, and residents need to be able to contact management in case of emergency or even if they just have questions. Typically, several different communication channels are used, depending on the situation. We use Rent Café to blast out info to all residents and also display that same notice in the elevators, however alternate means of communication need to be in place, whether it’s by hand-delivering notices to apartments, texting residents, contacting them by cell phone or posting to social media.

Managers should provide residents with emergency numbers for police and fire departments, utility providers and on-call maintenance staff. It might also be wise to send reminders to residents with cold weather tips on the safe use of candles and space heaters, which could help prevent damage to the building.

Remember that while managers don’t go in apartments every day, residents do, so consider using them as your eyes and ears, to provide early warnings of systems that might need attention before they turn into a problem.

3. Don’t ignore common sense

Property managers should do their best to encourage residents to use common sense when taking care of themselves and their apartments.

For example, residents often travel during the winter holidays. They should be reminded to close windows and avoid turning the temperature down too low in their apartments—commonly done by residents eager to save on utility costs. A friendly reminder to leave thermostats on a specific temperature (which may vary by management company, but 62 to 68 degrees is common) and to leave a faucet dripping to help reduce the possibility of pipes freezing and subsequently bursting, will help reduce the likelihood of property damage.

Managers should also use common sense as well. Routine maintenance, such as covering exposed pipes with insulted foam covers, turning off water mains and sealing windows and doors, should be part of the ongoing maintenance program but definitely should be reviewed annually during the early part of fall.

4. Don’t forget to look up

Property managers need to ensure that ground-level hazards, such as snow and ice, are eliminated. But the roof needs attention too.

To avoid a roof collapse or injury to residents, managers need to ensure that snow doesn’t build up on the roof. According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), the weight of one foot of fresh snow ranges between three pounds per square foot for light, dry snow and 21 pounds per square foot for wet, heavy snow.

How much snow a roof can bear depends on a host of factors, such as the roof slope, shape, the thermal condition of the building and the roof’s wind exposure. It’s essential that managers know the roof’s weight limit so they can take action to prevent snow accumulation reaching an unsafe level.

Managers also need to inspect roofs for the presence of icicles. According to the Snow & Ice Management Association, at least 15 people in the United States die each year from falling icicles. This is particularly common in garden apartment-style properties. Property managers can consider installing heat-trace wires in areas prone to ice buildup and warning residents with signs saying “Caution: Falling Ice.”

5. Don’t overlook the proper paperwork

Proof of renter’s insurance should already be on file, but make sure the policy is current. A renter’s policy covers not only the personal possessions of the resident but also provides liability coverage in the event the resident is negligent and causes damage to the property or injury to another person.

Why is this important? What happens if a resident of a high-rise escapes the brutal winter weather by going on vacation and accidentally leaves a sliding glass door open? If the unit gets cold enough and a pipe bursts, the damage could affect not only that resident’s unit but scores of units on floors below him or her, leading to massive losses. Since the resident was negligent, the building owner could make a claim against his renter’s policy, thus avoiding the expense.

With timely and proactive planning, multifamily property managers can ensure that not only will apartment residents remain safe during the winter season but that the asset itself will also be preserved through winter weather and into the spring thaw.

About the author:

Jack Devedjian is vice president of facilities management and engineering for The Habitat Company, a full-service residential real estate company specializing in property management, acquisitions and development. He oversees company-wide preventive maintenance and related training programs that are critical components to preserving the firm’s assets under management. Photo Courtesy of Alex Powell via Pexels

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