Landlord Guide to Rental Property Emergency Repairs

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All landlords know the dreaded feeling of getting a call from a tenant at 2 a.m. Their furnace stops working in below-freezing temperatures, or a burst pipe is spouting water everywhere, and it’s now an emergency that you need to deal with immediately. 

While outsourcing to a property management company may decrease the burden of emergency repairs, it’s important for all landlords to understand what counts as an emergency repair, how to plan proactively, and how to manage emergency situations when they happen.

What Is Considered an Emergency Repair for Rental Property?

Emergency maintenance situations for rental properties typically involve significant damage that impacts the immediate safety or usability of the property itself. 

Common examples of rental property emergencies include:

  • Gas leaks or carbon monoxide issues
  • Plumbing issues, including non-usable toilets or burst pipes that may cause flooding and property damage
  • A broken exterior door or lock that can’t be secured from the outside 
  • Air conditioners or furnaces that shut off in weather that legally requires heat or cold for safety purposes 
  • Extended power outages
  • Flooding or fire damage 
  • Sewage backups 
  • Extended power outage 
  • Severe electrical issues, including identified issues with live wires 

It’s important to consider that landlords won’t be the first call for these emergencies. If tenants notice a gas leak, for example, their first call should be to their local fire department due to the potential safety concern. Landlords can discuss the issue with the fire department to determine what immediate repairs can be made, if needed. 

Each state may have their own individual tenants’ right laws, which can influence what’s considered an urgent or emergent repair. Take note of your local regulations to determine what counts as an emergency that requires immediate solutions. 

What Is Considered Non-Emergency Maintenance?

Non-emergency maintenance includes any other repairs that aren’t emergent. They may still be considered urgent, as landlords have three to seven days to fix critical repairs and up to 30 days to make all other repairs.

Examples of non-emergency maintenance may include:

  • A broken air conditioner when the temperature is forecast to stay below 90 degrees
  • No hot water
  • Light fixtures have burned out.
  • Garage door openers aren’t working.
  • Peeling paint or damaged drywall
  • Pest infestations
  • One toilet or sink isn’t working, but there are multiple available in the property.
  • The stove isn’t heating up all the way. 
  • The freezer isn’t working as it should. 
  • Minor leaking from the roof, doors, or windows 

Proactive Preparation for Emergency Repairs

Emergency repairs are never fun, but they’re an inevitable part of being a landlord. And while you never know when they’ll strike—and they most often seem to happen at the least convenient times—there are steps landlords can take to prepare as much as possible in advance.

Start by educating tenants about what constitutes emergent and non-emergent repairs. Set reasonable expectations for how long it will take for both types of repairs to be resolved. Ensure tenants understand who to contact, and what official communication may be required, including any required forms that must be submitted. 

As a general rule of thumb, we recommend renters expect the same level of service homeowners may receive. Someone likely won’t be able to come out in the middle of a snowstorm, for example, and it may take eight to 12 hours to get any kind of expert out. 

You should also assemble lists of vendors, ideally with two or three companies offering emergency repairs for each service you may need, including plumbers, electricians, locksmiths, and HVAC repair experts. Establish relationships with vendors when possible so that they’ll be willing to come out on short notice if needed. 

Some landlords choose to work with property management answering services, which will be available to take tenant calls around the clock. Those middle-of-the-night calls can be referred to the answering service instead of waking up the landlord. 

Handling Emergency Maintenance Situations

When it comes to tackling tenants’ emergency maintenance situations, landlords really have three options: Handle it themselves, outsource contract maintenance to a third-party vendor, or, as mentioned, hire a property management service. 

DIY maintenance

DIY maintenance comes down to managing tenant repair and maintenance requests yourself. You’ll have to field incoming calls, potentially inspect the damage, and contact technicians for any work that you aren’t capable of or licensed to perform yourself. 

That said, it’s not always the best idea to hand over your personal cell phone number to residents. You could find yourself swarmed with even minor requests. It’s best to use a virtual phone number for maintenance, or have it routed to an office line if you have one. Tenants can leave a message, and you can call back immediately if it truly is something urgent. 

This can be challenging. Sometimes tenants may call and want an immediate solution when one isn’t available until the next day, or when the situation isn’t truly urgent. 

Make sure you’ve got your list of trusted contractors on hand and ready to go for when emergencies do arise. 

Contract maintenance to a third-party vendor

Many landlords prefer to handle most takes themselves, such as receiving and tracking payments or reviewing tenant applications. As a result, they don’t want to work with a property management company. 

Those who do want to be more involved (and keep more profit for themselves) but still want to outsource some maintenance repairs have the option to do so. There are maintenance companies specifically for landlords who self-manage their own rentals. They’ll handle ongoing maintenance and can be contacted for emergency repairs. 

When considering a maintenance contracting company, ask the same questions you would a property management company. This may be a great option for first-time landlords who want to maintain full control over the property but are intimidated by ongoing maintenance issues. 

Using a property management company

Landlords who choose to partner with property management companies may be able to rely on the property manager to oversee emergency repairs. In some cases, the company may have preferred vendors that can help provide emergency repairs faster.

When working with a property management company, ask the following questions to determine how they handle emergencies:

  • Do you charge extra for emergency repairs?
  • What are your guaranteed timelines for emergency maintenance?
  • What do you consider emergency maintenance?
  • Are your repair practices consistent with state and federal requirements? 
  • Do you have relationships with established vendors?
  • What do you need from me as the landlord to complete emergent and non-emergent repairs? 
  • How can my tenants get in touch to request emergent and non-emergent repairs? 
  • How much do you spend on repairs without my approval, and what type of repairs will you complete without my approval? 

Make sure that you’re not only comfortable with all the answers, but that there’s a formal contract that outlines everything you’ve agreed on. If it isn’t in writing, you can’t trust that the agreement will be enforced. This includes limits for how much the property manager can spend without additional permission, with limits often including $300, $500, and $1,000.  

Final Thoughts

Emergency maintenance doesn’t happen often, but it does happen. Having a plan in place, expectations set, and plenty of contractor contacts can keep you ready to handle anything that pops up.

Because emergency costs can be expensive—especially if you’re calling an emergency service overnight—it’s best to have funds allocated for situations that may arise. Again, while emergencies typically aren’t regular occurrences, a single plumbing issue could easily cost anywhere from $500 to $2,000 for a single visit. Being prepared financially is important.

Finally, avoid deferred maintenance whenever possible. Make regular repairs and updates as needed. Have your HVAC system serviced annually, for example, and ensure that the water heater is flushed at least once per year. This can prevent more expensive repairs from happening later, and it may catch issues before they become emergencies.

Save time and money with this refreshing guide to managing your own properties.

In The Self-Managing Landlord, Amelia McGee and Grace Gudenkauf share the secrets of efficient property management, tenant screening and onboarding, and scaling your business—all to help you break free from the 9-to-5 grind and create lasting wealth through real estate.

Note By BiggerPockets: These are opinions written by the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions of BiggerPockets.

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