By Rick Abell
September 22nd marks the first day of fall and our thoughts start to turn toward cooler weather as our minds race about all the things we accomplished this summer and maybe a few plans that got missed. At ALPS we are thinking about the items real estate investors need to concern themselves with during the next few months, specifically fires. Except for tornadoes, fires tend to be the most sudden, destructive and deadly losses we see. But unlike tornadoes, most fires are preventable.
While we should all be vigilant about preventing fires year-round at our homes and investment properties, October gives us an extra opportunity as it’s Fire Prevention Month. If you can’t handle a whole month, focus on the National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) Fire Prevention Week which runs October 7th through the 13th. For over 90 years the NFPA has been the official sponsor of Fire Prevention Week and this year’s theme is:
“Look. Listen. Learn. Be aware – fire can happen anywhere.”
- Look for places fire can start.
- Listen for the sound of the smoke alarm.
- Learn two ways out of each room.
Sounds very basic, but will you know what to do to if faced with a fire at your house? If you aren’t worried for yourself, will your spouse know how to handle a fire? How about your kids, or maybe your parents or grandparents? If you have rentals, do your tenants know how to prevent a fire or how to react if one occurs? Not everyone has that “hero gene,” and many of us panic when faced with a horrifying situation like a fire.
Our first step in Loss Prevention is being aware of what could happen, so let’s start with some statistics. The NFPA and Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) have done the “heavy lifting” as far as numbers so we’ll use their wealth of information and condense it for you here:
The CPSC estimates that there may be as many as 7.4 million fires in homes each year. The majority of those, a little over 7 million, are put out without having to call the fire department. We’ve all heard of somebody having a little incident or close call, but what about the big one? Time to call 911 and wake-up the neighbors, or in some instances it’s the neighbors calling to make a report. U.S. Fire Departments respond to an average of 358,500 home structure fires each year.
Here’s the tough reality of those statistics:
- One out of every 326 households report a fire each year.
- Seven people die in home fires every day.
- Each year we average 2,510 civilian deaths, 12,300 injuries and $6.7 billion in direct damage.
Property damage can be repaired or a home rebuilt, but when people can get hurt or killed, well we need to take an even harder look. What can you do? Today, let’s follow the NFPA’s theme of “Look. Listen. Learn.”
1) “LOOK for places fires can start.”
As you perform your regularly-scheduled home inspections, start looking for -and addressing- safety issues in the most common places fires start.
According to the NFPA the top areas in the home for fires to start are:
- Kitchen or cooking area, 43%
- Bedroom, 7%
- Confined chimney or flue, 5%
- Living room, family room or den, 4%
Let’s narrow down the culprits a little further and consider the leading causes of fires:
- Cooking Equipment, 47%
- Heating Equipment, 15%
- Electrical, 9%
- Intentional, 8%
- Smoking Materials, 5%
How can you address these leading causes of fires in your home and investment property so you or others don’t become a victim? Let’s explore remedies for each of the leading causes above.
LEADING CAUSE #1: COOKING EQUIPMENT
Providing an operable and safe stove and oven is a basic amenity for most rentals. You may have even installed new appliances in the house when you renovated it and got it ready for leasing. You might think, “I’ve done all I can, what more can I do?”
Ranges or cook tops were involved in 62% of home fires caused by cooking equipment, and unattended equipment was a contributing factor in 30% of cooking fires, while abandoned material contributed another 11%. (NFPA)
You can’t monitor what’s going on in the kitchen of your investment property 100% of the time, and a cooking test is probably not part of your tenant screening process, but you can educate the tenant about the dangers of cooking fires and the importance of staying in the kitchen while cooking.
You could also invest in a product like StoveTop FireStop (STFS). This product is designed to put out unattended cooktop fires. It’s like installing a fire suppression system, only much less expensive. You can order this product through the big box stores, or save some money using the ALPS discount code and order directly from the manufacturer. (This method also includes free shipping!) Plus, check with your insurance agent and see if you qualify for a discount on your insurance rates when you install STFS.
LEADING CAUSE #2: HOME HEATING EQUIPMENT
This equipment includes: central heating systems, portable and stationary space heaters, fireplaces, chimneys, heat transfer systems and water heaters. Regular inspection and servicing of the furnace and water heaters help minimize risk of malfunction and fires. Educating your tenants on the use of space heaters is also critical. You can share with them the following tips:
- Space heaters should not be the primary heating source in the house.
- Any space heater in use should be newer and equipped with safety features such as automatic shut-off if knocked over.
- Keep a 3-foot safety zone around the heater cleared of any flammables (blankets, toys, pet toys and any other clutter that might catch fire or cause the heater to be knocked over).
- Don’t extend the range of the heater by using an extension cord. The extension cord may overheat, becoming a fire hazard.
- Space heaters should not be left unattended or run over night.
You might also let your tenants know that running a 1,500-watt electric heater 24-hours-a-day for a month may cost them over $120 ($0.1395/kWh) on their electric bill – ouch! Lastly, make sure chimneys and fireplaces are inspected and cleaned by a professional chimney sweep annually. The inspection will reveal the health of the chimney and allow any fixes to be made before a chimney fire can occur.
BONUS TIP: Cleaning out dryer vents is a relatively easy task and can save you from a costly fire at your property. Make sure to instruct tenants to clean out the lint trap regularly too!
LEADING CAUSE #3: ELECTRICAL SYSTEMS
Your electrical system includes: fixed wiring, meters or meter boxes, switches, receptacles or outlets, transformers, breakers, cords, plugs, lighting equipment and the like.
When you first buy a property, making sure all components of your electrical system are up to code and in good condition is critical. Your insurer likely won’t cover some types of older wiring (i.e. aluminum, knob and tube), so not only is it unsafe, but if you suffer a loss, you most likely won’t be compensated for that loss either.
During your initial walk-through with tenants make sure they understand these fire hazards:
- Using too many extension cords and/or multiple multi-outlet strips can cause an overload.
- Covering electrical cords with carpet or other materials can cause them to overheat.
- Using appliances with cords (including extension cords) that are worn or frayed can cause the current to dangerously arc.
- Placing light bulbs too close to flammable items can cause heat to transfer.
LEADING CAUSE #4: INTENTIONALLY SET FIRES
Intentionally set fires start with a deliberate misuse of a heat source, not always but usually Arson. We’ve heard of tenants burning down houses when they found they were being evicted, squatters starting fires in vacant homes to stay warm during the winter and even the unthinkable, an investor burning down their own investment to get an insurance settlement. Firefighters and other innocents have been injured or killed in some of these incidents too, so arson and insurance fraud become secondary to a homicide charge.
During your regularly-scheduled inspections, limiting the items that are flammable may help decrease the possibility of someone starting a fire at your investment property. Picking-up litter, getting rid of firewood, removing old propane tanks or gas cans and paint stored around the house or in the garage can all dramatically reduce your risk of fire.
LEADING CAUSE #5: SMOKING MATERIALS
You may likely have a provision in your lease that prohibits your tenant from smoking inside or even on the premises. Your reasoning may be to avoid smoke damage or to not run off non-smokers from renting that unit in the future, but it also can keep your tenants and your investment safer. We have seen incidents where a fire was started when someone fell asleep on the living room couch, or even in bed, cigarette in hand. In some of those instances we’ve seen injuries and fatalities.
The garage is another common smoking spot; however, smoking there can create another dangerous scenario as the garage is often the place where flammables such as gasoline, paint thinner and other aerosols are stored. During your routine inspections, look for discarded cigarette butts on the property. Throwing one into a plant bed may ignite a fire that spreads to the house, for example. If your unit is non-smoking, make sure that is clearly stated in the lease and take seriously the enforcement of that rule. People’s lives may depend on it.
2) “LISTEN for the sound of the smoke alarm.”
Most, if not all jurisdictions require you to provide working smoke detectors in your rental homes. You might find it shocking to hear that 57% of home fire deaths result from fires where there was no smoke alarm present or at least one alarm was present but didn’t operate. (NFPA) It’s essential to provide working smoke alarms and test them regularly. Batteries don’t last forever and neither do smoke alarms, they both need to be changed out on a regular basis. Did you know the life expectancy of a smoke alarm is about 10 years and a carbon monoxide alarm, about 5 years? Do you have any alarms approaching that age that need to be replaced? Do you check the batteries at least twice a year?
During your regularly-scheduled inspections test each alarm. We’ve seen incidents where tenants have decided they didn’t want to be bothered with a chirp when the batteries were getting weak: they liked to smoke in the house but didn’t like the alarm going off or they burnt a meal in the kitchen, disconnected the batteries in their smoke detectors and forgot to reconnect them. None of these situations turned out well.
3) “LEARN two ways out of each room.”
You cannot force your tenants to make an emergency escape plan, but you can help by making sure there are two ways out of every room and provide helpful directions regarding the layout of the home. In 2013 a 22-year-old Boston University student died in a fire after getting trapped in her attic apartment. Not only horrific, but the family filed a lawsuit against the landlord and brokers, accusing them of renting an illegal apartment with insufficient exits and a faulty fire-alarm system. Don’t find yourself in this situation! Make sure your investment property meets fire code (e.g. be careful to remedy non-conforming bedrooms) and make an effort to educate your tenants about fire risks around the home.
Share this short 1½ minute video with your tenants to help them develop a fire escape plan:
FIRE PREVENTION RESOURCES
Free resources are available from ALPS, such as the Your Safe Home Brochure. You can find even more resources in our Resource Center. The National Fire Protection Association (www.nfpa.org) has some great resources too, some of which are free and some that may require a small fee.
For more ways to prevent fires at your investment property, check out these other articles: