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What are the best practices to protect your tenants and property during natural disasters?

People always come before property. As a landlord, your most important responsibility is making sure that basic safety needs are met. In many disasters, that means quick evacuations and abandoning possessions. If your emergency systems are not up to code or fail to work, you may be liable if a tenant gets hurt.

Keep escape routes clear. In multifamily housing, make sure tenants are not using hallways, stairwells, fire escapes, or exterior walkways for storage. Make sure doorways and exit doors are not blocked and are fully functional. In single-family homes, make sure all doors and windows operate properly and escape routes are not blocked by landscaping, tools, debris, or construction work. If there are fire escapes, keep them in good repair and do not let tenants use them for storage or outdoor patios.

For fire suppression, inspect and maintain your sprinkler system and extinguisher devices. There may be local or state laws requiring this to occur annually or at another regular interval. You might consider outfitting each unit with its own fire extinguisher or, minimally, access to a fire extinguisher in a nearby common area. 

Some landlords choose to provide tenants or properties with safety devices like emergency flashlights, window ladders, sandbags, storm shutters, and more. While there could be potential liability if a tenant gets hurt using it or if the tool fails, the pros tend to outweigh the cons when it comes to ensuring disaster supplies are on hand. Just make sure the supplies and devices are inspected annually to make sure they are still safe for use.

What emergency or safety systems are required by law?

Emergency and safety system requirements vary widely based on location and building construction date and size. In addition, older buildings may be exempt from some building code requirements that were introduced at a later date. Some state and local laws, however, can require safety updates regardless of a property's age or size.

Still, here are some common emergency and safety systems deployed throughout the country:

  • Smoke and carbon monoxide detectors.
  • Fire alarms that notify emergency services.
  • Fire extinguishers.
  • Designated emergency exits.
  • Doors or windows that open to escape routes.
  • Designated routes to evacuation zones and emergency shelters.

In addition, state or local laws may require you to maintain certain emergency and safety systems to meet the location's unique characteristics. Keeping your emergency and safety systems properly maintained is something you can include in your Maintenance Contract with a qualified contractor. You should also request that tenants submit a Tenant Maintenance Request or a Complaint to Landlord if there is a problem or concern about the safety systems.

Can landlords provide emergency supplies for each unit or building?

Landlords may provide emergency supplies like fire extinguishers, smoke detectors, snow shovels, and anything else that might be required for the location. While disposable and personal items, such as batteries and emergency food, are usually purchased by tenants, landlords may want to provide some essentials as well. You may want to post information in common areas about the local disaster risks and what tenants can do to prepare. Providing tenants with a copy of this information with their Lease Agreement is a good idea.

The lease may provide instructions about the provided safety equipment, such as smoke detectors, requiring tenants to notify you when it requires maintenance. While you may ask or rely on tenants to change a smoke detector, or just the battery, confirming it works and meets codes is still a landlord's responsibility. In addition to supplies, it's a good idea to provide a list of emergency contacts for local hospitals, utilities, and emergency repair services, as well as the safety brochures produced by local government or relief agencies.

How often do landlords need to inspect emergency safety systems?

Landlords should understand both local laws and manufacturer requirements for their safety systems, and should schedule inspections and maintenance accordingly. Documenting what gets inspected and repaired on a Maintenance Report Form can be helpful for record-keeping. 

For example, smoke detectors usually need a monthly check, but most landlords will leave this to the tenant and only check annually. Some items, such as fire extinguishers or emergency exits, may need periodic professional inspections. 

A landlord is usually responsible for hiring the appropriate inspector and coordinating access with the tenant through a Landlord's Notice to Enter. If entry to a unit is not required, it is still a good idea to provide a courtesy notice to tenants when inspections are scheduled.

To learn more about your legal obligations, talk to a Rocket Lawyer network attorney or download the Rocket Lawyer Mobile App.

This article contains general legal information and does not contain legal advice. Rocket Lawyer is not a law firm or a substitute for an attorney or law firm. The law is complex and changes often. For legal advice, please ask a lawyer.

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