Extreme and unpredictable weather events like the recent Polar Vortex have been impacting our area this winter and are likely to keep happening. As news reports announce impending doom, communities prepare for the impacts of wild winter weather. While that can mean the usual inconveniences of shopping for provisions, arranging childcare or indoor activities for children at home due to school closures and managing work expectations when you can’t get to the office, the impacts can be even more extreme on landlords and their tenants.

Long stretches of cold can mean big trouble for houses and heating systems not built to withstand bitter cold for more than a few days. Add in the hazards of snow and ice covered trees, walkways and roofs, and landlords have a lot to consider when big winter storms are staring down our region.

If you’re a landlord and you want to be ready when extreme winter weather hits, here are some tips for making sure your property will stand up to cold, snow and ice when they arrive.
1. Check your heating systems.
Before temperatures drop below freezing, make sure your heating systems are operating correctly. DC regulations require that equipment be able to maintain indoor temperatures of at least 68 degrees during the day and 65 degrees at night in all occupied rooms and bathrooms.
2. Have a back-up plan.
If you think your heating system won’t be able to maintain the required temperatures during long cold snaps, make sure you have a backup plan. For tenants in the properties we maintain, we provide portable oil-filled electric radiators to tenants who may need added heat sources to supplement the rental unit’s heating system. You may also want to have backup housing on standby, in case the heat stops working completely, so that your tenants have somewhere to go until it can be fixed.
3. Be realistic.
When extreme weather hits, heating companies are often overwhelmed with repair and maintenance work. Don’t rely solely on the professionals to solve problems that may come up because they may not be able to get your rental promptly. Have contact information available for several repair companies and be willing to take alternative measures–like finding temporary housing, as mentioned above–if problems can’t be fixed quickly.
4. Educate your tenants.
Tenants can be a huge help in keeping your property safe during winter weather. As winter ramps up, remind your tenants that a dirty air filter (for gas forced air or heat pumps) can cut down on the efficiency of the heating unit and the air flow–which can impact the temperature of their home and their heating bill. Encourage them to prepare for the cold by changing the air filter if it hasn’t been done recently. You can also temper your tenants’ expectations by explaining that heat pump systems are not designed to keep the house toasty warm when the temperatures are below freezing–especially when those temperatures stay low for several days in a row. Remind tenants that while the use of the Emergency Heat setting can help to heat the space up quickly, it can also significantly increase their electricity bill. Make sure that they understand their utility bills will be impacted by the weather and that these fluctuations are normal.
5. Avoid frozen pipes.
If your property is older or has an extension, the water lines may be prone to freezing–even if they are insulated. Just two consecutive days where temperatures fail to rise above freezing can cause water pipes to freeze and burst. If your pipes may be at risk of freezing, your tenants can again be your best defense. Make sure they know where pipes might be in danger and remind them to keep the area heated. You should also have them run faucets in affected areas so that the water trickles constantly. If your tenant is responsible for water bills, you may even offer a supplement or discount for the winter months to encourage them to be proactive in avoiding frozen pipes.
6. Maintain your roof.
Winter cold isn’t the only thing to worry about in our area these days. Snow and ice can add another layer of strain on your property when winter storms head our way. Make sure your property’s roof is well maintained and have it checked–and repaired, if necessary–each fall to avoid leaks and more serious issues once snowy and icy conditions arrive. If snow and ice hang around for a while, be sure to have tenants on the lookout for any signs of leaks or roof damage so that minor issues can be addressed before they become more serious.
7. Keep walkways safe.
When sidewalks, steps and stoops are covered in snow and ice, they become a major hazard, not just for your tenants but also for those living and working in the neighborhood. Make sure you have a plan for snow removal–whether it is your responsibility, you hire someone else, or you ask your tenants to take care of it–and a back-up just in case travel is limited by road conditions. Lay down salt as often as necessary to keep walkways from getting slick. If your tenants will be responsible for keep walkways clear, make sure to provide shovels and salt and give them guidance about shoveling safety, as well as when and where to clear and salt pathways.

Ultimately, you and your tenants are a team. Having your tenants on board could save thousands of dollars in damage and emergency repairs when Old Man Winter comes knocking. Get your tenants involved and committed to helping prevent issues that may come up due to extreme winter weather, and you’ll be able to prevent major issues down the road.