Tag Archives: disasters and emergencies

Portable Heaters May Pose a Greater Danger Than You Think

iStock_000034198242Small-300pxIt’s always tragic to learn about a fire at an apartment complex, regardless of the circumstances surrounding it. But it’s particularly frustrating when the cause is a tenant’s portable heater. It means someone was just trying to get warm and was using a device intended for this purpose—yet something went horribly wrong, putting life and property at risk.

Apparently, something goes horribly wrong with portable heaters too often, and with unusually dire consequences.

According to a recent study of portable heater fires in residential buildings by the U.S. Fire Administration, roughly 900 such fires are reported each year in residential buildings across the United States, with the greatest number occurring in January. Most notably, while portable heaters are responsible for only 2% of residential heating fires, they’re involved in a whopping 45% of all fatal residential heating fires and cause an estimated $53 million in property loss annually.

That’s why tenants need to be careful when it comes to portable heater use in their apartments and landlords should consider banning portable heaters or adopting rules governing their safe use at a rental property.

Should Tenants Use Portable Heaters?

If tenants are using portable heaters in their apartments, it raises the question of whether the landlord is providing adequate heat. As a landlord, the best way to lower a risk is to remove it completely, and so deciding to ban portable heaters altogether may be wise. But before you consider imposing such a ban, first be sure that you’re providing adequate heat to all apartments in your building. Not only are you required by law to do so, but providing adequate heat means tenants probably won’t use portable heaters anyway, eliminating the danger risks that these devices pose.

Courts recognize an implied warranty of habitability, which requires landlords to maintain apartments where tenants may live comfortably, including staying warm in the winter. Moreover, many local laws spell out specific requirements for providing heat to tenants. For example, New York City landlords are required to provide heat from October through May. During the day (6 a.m. through 10 p.m.), the temperature inside an apartment must be at least 68 degrees if the outside temperature falls below 55 degrees; at night (10 p.m. through 6 a.m.), the inside temperature must be at least 55 degrees if the outside temperature falls below 40 degrees.

If you’re a tenant and you believe your heat isn’t working as it’s supposed to, you shouldn’t have to spend extra money on a portable heater and higher electric bills. Start by contacting your landlord about any heat issues. Chances are, if your heat is inadequate, your neighbors are experiencing the same problem, and so your communication may yield more responsive results if you approach your landlord together. Short of taking a landlord to court, you may be able to get a heat problem resolved through a municipality’s specific resolution procedure. For example, New York City tenants can make a complaint by calling 311 or visiting the city’s 311 website.

For more information about a landlord’s implied warranty of habitability, be sure to check out the Nolo article, “Tenant Rights to a Livable Place.”

Follow Two Simple Rules for Portable Heater Safety

A look at the U.S. Fire Administration’s study reveals the top two reasons why portable heaters have sparked fires in residential buildings. (The remaining contributing factors involve equipment malfunction and electrical issues.) So, if you’re a tenant who uses a portable heater or a landlord who allows them, play it safe with these two simple rules:

Rule #1: Don’t place portable heaters near items that can burn. Topping the list (at 52.4%) of factors contributing to portable heater fires is “Heat source too close to combustibles.” This means that if you must use a portable heater in your apartment, keep it away from items that can burn. The study cites “soft goods” such as bedding, curtains, and clothing as the most common type of item that gets ignited by portable heaters.

Rule #2: Don’t leave portable heaters unattended. The second-most common contributing factor cited in the study (at 11.5%) is “Equipment unattended.” So, be sure to make a habit of switching portable heaters off before leaving your apartment, taking a shower, or going to sleep.

Just this past Saturday, a family in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, didn’t follow these rules and tragically lost their home, dog, and possessions to a fire sparked by a portable heater. According to a report from Fox6Now.com, the family didn’t shut off the portable heater when they left for church, and the fire ignited when a curtain came into contact with the unit.

Eliminating Pests Without Destroying Apartments

iStock_000041523660Small-300pxIt’s unsettling to discover pests living in your apartment. Aside from being scary and annoying, the presence of these unwelcome visitors threaten a range of serious issues, from health concerns to property damage. Whether an infestation of cockroaches, mounting evidence of bed bugs, or a single sighting of a mouse is what’s causing alarm, landlords and tenants both have compelling reasons to move quickly to eradicate pests from their rental property.

But before you rush to fight pests at your building, keep in mind that it’s important to proceed with care. Taking shortcuts or acting recklessly can lead to greater problems, including apartment damage and tenant displacement.

Here are two costly mistakes landlords and tenants often make when trying to combat a pest problem that you should strive to avoid repeating at your building:

Mistake #1: Not Reading Directions Carefully

If you buy a pest-fighting device that’s new to you, be sure to read the instructions carefully and not gloss over the warnings on the label. In your eagerness to treat a pest problem, it may be tempting to proceed without learning about the proper use of a device and ignore cautionary statements because you assume they’re common knowledge or meaningless legalese. But even inexpensive products that consumers can purchase in a hardware or home supply store have the potential to cause substantial damage and serious injury if they’re misused.

One common example of such a device is a fogger, or “bug bomb.” If you’re not already familiar with this product, you should know that a fogger spreads pesticide across a room or an entire apartment through a mechanism of aerosol propellants. In addition to making sure you’re not present in an apartment while a fogger’s fumigation takes place, it’s also essential to make sure any pilot light (such as for an oven) is turned off before you begin using a fogger. If chemicals from a fogger come into contact with a pilot light or other ignition source, it can result in a harmful explosion (just ask Joe). If you’re not sure how to turn off pilot lights in an apartment, check with your local utility company.

Mistake #2: Not Monitoring Risky Pest Treatments

Sometimes, the treatment used to fight a pest problem takes a short time to apply, and then it’s just a matter of waiting for results. This is the case, for example, with a pesticide spray, which may eliminate certain insects either on contact or over a period of time. Other treatments, such as the fogger (mentioned above), may necessitate your leaving the apartment until the health risk is gone. But certain pest treatments involve a special procedure that needs to be monitored until finished. Leaving an apartment unattended while such a pest-control procedure is ongoing can lead to major problems.

Recently, the owner of a Des Moines, Iowa, apartment building used a large, commercial bed bug treatment heater to eliminate a problem in a vacant apartment. While the heater was left unattended, it malfunctioned and ignited a fire, causing $30,000 in damages, according to a report from The Des Moines Register. This incident prompted the city fire department to issue a public warning Monday on the risks of using such heaters to fight bed bugs, urging consumers to be present in case of an electrical overload that can lead to a fire.

As you can see, landlords and tenants who temper their eagerness with caution and diligence when it comes to fighting pests are likely to accomplish their goals without incident or catastrophe.

Your Assignment This Weekend: Save Lives

iStock_000025583375Small-300pxBeginning Sunday, most of the United States will observe Daylight Saving Time, and if you’re one of the millions of people who will be moving their clocks back an hour, you may already be planning what you’ll do with the extra time you’ll gain.

If you’re a tenant, consider taking a few minutes from that extra hour to make sure your apartment’s smoke detectors are in working order. Fire and safety experts across the United States recommend this, and Energizer, along with the International Association of Fire Chiefs, has been spreading this important message through a “Change Your Clock Change Your Batteries” campaign for 27 years.

This small task can go a long way toward saving lives in the unfortunate event of a fire at your building. Here are some sobering statistics from a recent report by the National Fire Protection Association:

  • Smoke alarms didn’t sound in 48% of reported home fires.
  • In 60% of home fire deaths, smoke alarms weren’t there to help… 37% of the time, there weren’t any smoke detectors present and 23% of the time, the smoke alarms didn’t sound.
  • When smoke detectors failed, it was usually because the batteries were missing, disconnected, or dead.
  • The risk of dying in a home fire is cut in half when working smoke detectors are present.

If smoke detectors are missing from your apartment or you find they’re not working even with new batteries, talk to your landlord, who may be obligated to replace them under state or local law.

Speaking of which, if you’re a landlord, why not use this opportunity to check that you’re in full compliance with your state and local codes regarding detectors? Such an effort helps keep tenants safe and your property intact. Plus, if a fire occurs, you won’t be open to liability if a tenant or guest claims that your failure to follow safety codes contributed to their injuries.

Smoke detector laws vary in their complexity but typically at least set forth requirements for the number and placement of smoke detectors as well as carbon monoxide detectors in a building. If you’ve been referring to a printed version of the law, it might be out of date. California’s and New York City’s smoke detector law, for example, have changed significantly in just the past year. If you’re not already familiar with how to find laws that affect your rental properties, check out Nolo’s “Legal Research” resource for guidance.

Sheltering in Place: Escaping Danger by Staying Put

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When you think of an emergency situation taking place at an apartment building, chances are evacuation comes to mind as an appropriate response. After all, when there’s an imminent danger somewhere in the building, such as a fire, smoke condition, gas leak, or structural failure, evacuating the building makes sense to ensure that tenants escape danger and reach a place where they can stay safe.

But some emergencies that pose a threat to tenants in their apartments occur right outside the building, in the immediate neighborhood, or in an even more widespread area. When this type of emergency occurs, it means the safest course of action for tenants to take is actually to remain in their home. Not only would evacuation be ill-advised under such circumstances, but authorities may issue a “shelter-in-place” order, requiring everyone in an apartment building to stay put until the risks of leaving have gone away.

Although the term is unfamiliar to many people, a shelter-in-place order is more common than you might think. Here are examples of a variety of situations that led to a shelter-in-place order in communities across the United States that made headlines in just the past week:

  • San Jose, California, September 25, 2014: A storm caused a transformer to blow and catch fire, leading fire officials to order nearby residents to shelter in place, according to reporting from NBC Bay Area.
  • Ridgeway, New York, September 24, 2014: As state police engaged in a standoff with a man who allegedly threatened his mother with a gun while barricaded inside her home, nearby residents were ordered to shelter in place, according to reporting from WIVB.
  • Mosinee, Wisconsin, September 24, 2014: A utility company employee accidentally ruptured a gas line with a backhoe, causing a natural gas leak in an industrial park, according to a report from the Wassau Daily Herald. Fortunately, there apparently weren’t any residential properties in the immediate area, however people in a FedEx building near the leak were reportedly asked to shelter in place.
  • Mountain View, California, September 24, 2014: After discovering two bodies while trying to identify the cause of a mysterious noxious odor, local authorities called for the evacuation of two apartment buildings and ordered tenants of a third building to shelter in place, according to a report from The Elkhart Truth.
  • Barrett Township, Pennsylvania, September 19, 2014: State police ordered residents in the neighborhood of an accused cop killer to shelter in place for roughly 24 hours as they searched for him following an exchange of gun fire, according to a report from 69 News. County officials reportedly set up a temporary shelter at the fire house for residents who weren’t home when the shelter-in-place order was issued.

As a tenant, you should be aware of what to do if a shelter-in-place order is issued when you’re in your apartment. If you’re a landlord, you’ll need to aid authorities by making sure tenants, employees, and any visitors who happen to be on your property stay safe. To help you, check out this Nolo article for more information about complying with a shelter-in-place order.

Can Landlords Benefit from Renter’s Insurance?

iStock_000015565844Small-300pxAs you read in the last post (see “Renting Without Insurance: Why So Many Tenants Do It,” August 29, 2014), renter’s insurance offers significant benefits to tenants. Most notably, tenants need renter’s insurance to cover losses to their personal property, since their landlord’s insurance only covers the building’s structure. Plus, renter’s insurance includes a liability component that can offer you coverage in case, for example, someone breaks a hip after tripping over a step in your apartment.

It’s no surprise that, true to its name, renter’s insurance aims to help renters. But does a renter’s insurance policy also benefit landlords? In other words, is a landlord better off if the tenants in the building have renter’s insurance?

The answer is yes. Although renter’s insurance is only for renters and landlords already have their own insurance, landlords nevertheless stand to benefit when their tenants also buy insurance. If a tenant gets compensated after a loss thanks to insurance, it’s more likely that the tenant will continue staying in the apartment and remain in a position to afford the rent. Plus, if a guest is injured and you’re found partly liable, you’ll feel better knowing your tenant’s insurer is there to shoulder the tenant’s costs.

How to Get Your Tenants to Carry Renter’s Insurance

Tenants are already paying rent, a security deposit, and other apartment-related fees and expenses. So, how do you get tenants to open their wallets again and purchase a renter’s insurance policy? You have two choices:

  1. Require it. Some landlords choose to require tenants to have renter’s insurance, citing the benefits to both parties. Sometimes, a landlord’s insurer actually imposes this requirement. If you decide to require tenants to carry insurance, you can add an addendum to your lease going forward. You’ll need to wait, however, until lease renewal with current tenants. If your property participates in an affordable housing program, be sure to check if the program rules bar you from requiring any additional financial outlays from tenants, such as renter’s insurance premiums. If you decide to require renter’s insurance, enforce it by giving yourself the right to ask tenants for proof that their policy is still in effect each year.
  2. Suggest it. There’s nothing stopping you from simply recommending renter’s insurance to your tenants. Since the reason so many tenants don’t carry a policy is they’re not aware of the option or they don’t understand the need, giving your tenants a little education about renter’s insurance without pressure may actually inspire them to buy a policy. You can spread the word by giving tenants information on renter’s insurance at their lease signing, in an email to tenants, or as part of an issue of your property’s newsletter, if you publish one. Mention the benefits, point out the average cost ($15-$30 per month, according to the National Association of Insurance Commissioners), and provide a list of suggested insurer sites for tenants to go for more information about purchasing a policy, such as State FarmGEICOAllstate, and Progressive.