By: Demetrios Salpoglou
There have been a number of high-profile fires across the country lately. The wildfires in California are partially to blame. By some estimates, there could be upwards of $65 billion in property damage by the time all is said and done.
House fires typically happen without much fanfare. But just because we don’t hear about them often doesn’t mean they don’t happen on a regular basis. According to the National Fire Prevention Association, there are an estimated 100,000 apartment fires each year.
With so many other things to preoccupy their time (finding tenants, collecting rent, routine maintenance, etc.), most landlords don’t spend much time worrying about what to do if a fire breaks out at their rental property.
Sound familiar? Well, you aren’t alone.
But we can’t ignore the fact that fires still happen on occasion. And when they do, you need to be prepared to respond. Here’s our best advice about what to if a fire damages your rental property.
Start by collecting information.
We’re going to assume the fire has already occurred. Firefighters were called and the fire has been put out. Now what? We recommend collecting as much information about the fire as possible. You’ll want this information when making a claim with your insurance company.
Interview residents to learn what may have caused the fire. Some people might be tempted to cover up the cause, particularly if they were engaging in an activity in violation of their lease. The truth will eventually come out, so encourage residents to be straightforward. It’ll make everyone’s life easier.
Just don’t be accusatory. It’s very possible that the fire was accidental. It may have been caused by faulty wiring, for instance. Residents are probably as shaken up as you are. The last thing you want to do is accidentally place blame on anyone for a fire that was actually accidental.
The fire department will ultimately conduct its own investigation, but it’s important to collect any information you can while it’s still fresh in people’s minds. Once the fire department closes its investigation, be sure to obtain a copy of the final report.
Get in touch with your insurance company, ASAP!
Anyone who’s ever had to file an insurance claim knows that these claims can take a while to process. That’s why it’s important to contact your insurance company ASAP.
In most cases you’ll be filing a claim for casualty loss, characterized by damage that happens suddenly. An apartment fire is one of the most common types of casualty losses, and a loss that is almost universally covered by providers.
Offer tenants relocation assistance.
Depending on the severity of the fire, some residents might be displaced either temporarily or permanently. The Red Cross and other agencies will often help tenants find new housing. But to the extent you’re able, do your part in helping residents relocate. For instance, if you have a vacant unit nearby, you could re-house them there for now.
Most insurance companies will reimburse you for relocation costs, assuming the fire wasn’t a result of landlord negligence.
Now is also a good time to encourage tenants to file a claim with their renters’ insurance provider if they have coverage. It’s also a good time to encourage your residents at other properties to get renters insurance if they haven’t already done so.
Begin to document damages.
Once the fire department has given you the go-ahead to enter the property, start taking pictures and videos of any damage caused by the fire. Do an inventory of the interior and exterior of the property. Be sure to jot down the model number of appliances, condition of structural elements like cabinets and countertops, and damage to any equipment (lawn mowers, etc.) stored on site. You may also want to mentally prepare in advance of a fire by having and inventory checklist of all your properties. There is great software out there today where you can store copious amounts of information for your properties in an organized manner.
Make sure the property is secure.
If your property is no longer habitable, make sure it is at least secure. You have enough on your plate as it is; you don’t need to be dealing with trespassers. Board up windows and doors. Use a heavy-duty plastic to cover exposed areas. You may even consider installing security cameras or a temporary fence around the perimeter to keep unauthorized guests away. Don’t be afraid to ask your neighbors for help in watching the property. They will understand your plight.
Embark on repair and restoration efforts.
For landlords, time is money. Every day the property sits vacant means a temporary loss in revenue, so you’ll want to begin repair and restoration efforts as soon as possible. It is always a good idea as a landlord to have a large network of contractors and renovation experts. It never hurts to go out one lunch per month with a contractor or renovation expert to maintain solid relationships.
Depending on the severity of the fire, you may need to enlist the help of a multitude of industry professionals. Damages caused by fires are unlike typical property damages. Water, smoke and fire can create unsuspecting structural issues that weaken the building. You’ll want someone or a team who understands the nuances of building fires to help with repair and restoration efforts.
Get the property re-inspected by city officials.
As your buttoning up final repairs, schedule an appointment with all relevant city officials (fire, inspectional services, etc.) to obtain your new certificate of occupancy. You’ll need to have this certificate in hand before tenants are allowed to move back in.
Apartment fires are scary for everyone involved. Fortunately, the majority of landlords will never experience one. But in the unfortunate event one happens at your rental property, we hope this advice will help you remain level-headed during an otherwise stressful situation.