Avoid Surprise Property Maintenance

It’s New Year’s Eve. Outside the thermometer says 10 degrees, and the wind is picking up. You have a big evening planned at a huge party. But your phone rings– it’s a call from a tenant. The furnace in the building has quit.

What do you know about furnaces? Not much. The only thing you know for sure is that they always break at the most inopportune times. They have a history with you. Just about every winter one of your heating plants up and croaks. Of course the calls about it come in the evening because that’s when tenants come home from work and discover it’s cold. And of course, that’s when it costs more to persuade the repairman to come out. (They’re really pretty happy to come since it pays them double, but they play hard to get anyway.)

So now instead of enjoying the big party, you get to ring in the millennium working on restoring heat for one of your properties. You kept hearing about the Y2K problem, but thought it had to do with computers quitting because they were confused about the date. Here it isn’t even midnight yet. You never dreamed you would create your own Y2K problem because you ignored the notices from your furnace repair companies last summer, saying that “now is the time to get your furnaces checked to save you grief next winter.”

That problem is just one that has to do with setting up and following a program that allows you to operate your rental properties so that you can plan social, family, recreational and vacation time with confidence. You know that there is only one chance in a thousand that the phone will ring at an inappropriate time with a repair problem.

How do you do that? Your first step is to prioritize all your repair and maintenance tasks. Steven Covey’s book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People shows that the really successful people categorize tasks four ways: 1. Important 2. Urgent 3. Neither urgent nor important 4.Both urgent and important

Here are some examples: 1. Safety and habitability. The call about no heat in the middle of winter has to take precedence over all other repairs. Likewise electrical problems, fire hazards and things which affect the security and weather tightness of your tenants’ dwellings would demand you immediate attention. That is both urgent and important. As we will discuss later, though, you can avoid just about all of those situations with planning and preparation.

2. Situations that affect your tenants’ ability to enjoy their homes. A broken furnace qualifies under both numbers one and two and as both urgent and important. But other less urgent things would also.

These include urgent and important items such as plumbing problems, water/sewer/ septic problems, roof leaks and even less urgent items such as potholes in parking lots, burned out light bulbs and trip hazards in common areas. Those are things that you need to repair or get repaired in the next day or so, but are not life-threatening, and may also avail themselves of temporary fixes until they can be repaired permanently. Other things that aren’t urgent, but are important and affect your tenants’ quality of life and their perception of their homes and surroundings.

Your tenants’ perception of their surroundings very much determines how they treat their homes and indeed how long they will stay before they decide they can rent “somewhere nicer.” The appearance and maintenance of the property especially determines who will be attracted to renting there. That means not only is it important that you take care of the important, urgent items in your property, but also the important and non-urgent ones as well. And there are not many things in rental property maintenance that don’t fall under the heading of “important.”

3. Preventive maintenance. A well set up program is what keeps your phone from ringing with repair calls at the worst times possible, bad times, or even just about any time. It takes care of important items before they become both urgent and important.

As I wrote in the September 1996 article: An expense that saves you money— it sounds like an oxymoron. It takes small problems and keeps them that way. Patching a small leak in the roof now stops major water damage later. Of course it’s elementary. But why is it then that so many landlords don’t do any preventive maintenance?

And as Mark Lamendola wrote in EC&M Magazine: “The more you cut out of… preparation, the more effort you need to cure the resulting problems. These problems don’t just happen. Regardless of choice, we plan.” Their breaking will become an inconvenience and disruption to your tenants. You find these by performing regular inspections of your properties. Once you find them through inspections, you remove them from the realm of surprise. There are no good surprises in the rental property business.

Now repair the problems you find on your schedule, not the schedule of the thing that is about to break. That will spare you further calls from tenants. And you know that the calls never come when you are sitting by the phone, wishing for someone to call so you can go over and fix something. Rather, they come at inopportune moments, like when the phone rings about broken furnaces.

5. Project work and construction. Careful planning is required here, because construction work can be a real inconvenience to your tenants, creating a situation that is similar to number two above. The idea behind construction and projects is that it makes your property more valuable by serving your tenants (and yourself) better.

It takes a long time for people to forget the annoyance of having to try to exist around construction projects. Probably the biggest annoyance comes when projects start and stall–not only for you, but especially for your tenants. That usually happens when you try to do them yourself, but something else interferes, such as urgent repairs. Your tenants start to look forward to the completed project, but then become disillusioned when after everything is torn up work stops for no apparent reason. You just want the work to be done.

If you do construction and remodeling projects do one or all of the following:

1. Keep your tenants constantly informed about the plans and progress.

2. Use a contractor to do the work, if possible, so having to do repairs yourself doesn’t halt progress.

3. After the job is completed, give your tenants a thank-you gift for being so patient during the work.

Put your maintenance under your control. If you don’t already, sit down and begin planning when you will inspect your properties, create a preventive maintenance program and budget, create a repair plan and ask your tenants what components of their homes look as if they will need fixing soon.

That done, get to implementing your “save your sanity” program. Then sit back and relax, the phone isn’t going to ring with a repair disaster.


Reprinted by Permission. Copyright © 2008 Cain Publications, Inc. Robert Cain is a nationally-recognized speaker and writer on property management and real estate issues. For a free of the Rental Property Reporter call 800-654-5456 or visit www.rentalprop.com.

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