As a manager of a property for another legal entity, whether that entity is a retiree who bought an apartment building to subsidize their retirement, or a larger corporation that leases hundreds of homes as rental properties, you are probably acutely aware of the need to control the risks for various hazards to a property with occupants. One of the largest risks to any home, one that certain estimates identify as costing well over $6 billion dollars per year, is residential building fires. While the U.S. Fire Administration shows that, from 2007-11, the total number of fires has declined a little (364,500 compared to 390,300), there is no indication that the problem is going to go away anytime soon.
What are the Common Causes of a Fire?
There are numerous potential causes for a fire, while you, as a property manager, may not be able to control every possible source of a fire, there are many risk factors you can mitigate with due diligence and proper property maintenance. Here is a list of common flame sources, and how you can mitigate them.
Electrical Systems- This is one source of fire that you can effectively manage with routine inspections and maintenance. While not the leading cause of residential fires, the NFPA estimates that electrical issues cause 50,000 home fires per year on average. About half of these blazes are the result of faulty electrical lines or lights, and the rest are caused by various appliances (dryers, microwaves, space heaters, A/C, etc.). By regularly inspecting the condition of the property’s electrical lines, you can identify damaged lines that may spark and cause flame, as well as overloaded outlets that have too many adapters plugged into them. Another common issue is the use of extension cords, especially underneath a carpet or rug. These cords are designed for temporary use, and running them under a carpet not only creates a tripping hazard, but it also hides any potential warning signs of the need to replace the line (such as worn insulation, discoloration, and tears).
Cooking Fires- This is one of the leading causes of house fires according to the NFPA, and unfortunately, you will have less control over this hazard than you do with electrical system risk factors. Why? Because, although you can monitor the condition of the cooking equipment, investigate the clutter around the cooking surfaces, and even remind the tenant of the importance of fire safety, you cannot be there all of the time as they cook. Try to minimize risk by ensuring that the tenant knows how to operate the kitchen equipment, and that they know what to do in case of an emergency.
Open Flame Sources in the Home- Whether the open flame is a candle or a roaring fireplace, it is a potential fire hazard waiting to happen. Your level of control over this particular risk will vary, as you may or may not have fireplaces or barbecue grills on the property in the first place. The risk of a candle-based flame starting a blaze is statistically low (these only account for three percent of all fires according to the NFPA), however, they can still cause severe burns and fatalities. During your home inspection, make sure that candle fixtures have not been installed near flammable objects such as curtains (under most lease agreements, such modifications should not be made at all). Fireplaces should be cleaned out at least once per season to prevent the buildup of potentially flammable chemicals that can cause an explosive reaction.
Other Prevention Tips
Another way in which you can minimize the risk of a fire is by making sure that shrubbery near the home is healthy and not dry or prone to ignition. During a drought, if the shrubs near the home are dry, consider removing the greenery to prevent it from becoming a potential risk for spreading flames.
You can also help prevent fatalities in a fire by inspecting and replacing the smoke detectors in the home on a regular basis. At minimum, there should be one detector per floor of the residence, but having a detector in each room is better. These devices need to be replaced at least once every ten years, and if you do not know when the detectors were installed, it may be a good idea to change them out just to be sure. In many cases, the screech of the fire alarm is the first warning that a tenant will have that a fire has broken out. This early warning can mean the difference between life and death for everyone in the building.
Familiarize tenants with fire escape locations and other escape routes from the building, as well as the location of fire extinguishers. Access to this information can also help prevent fatalities in a blaze. Do not be embarrassed to ask tenants if they know their emergency evacuation routes and where emergency supplies in the residence are kept. Not sharing this information with them can cost them their lives later on.
Background check your tenants. This may seem like mean-spirited advice, but if a tenant has a previous history of causing fires, the risk of them causing a fire in your managed property is going to be exponentially higher, as Capt. Tim Flinn tells interviewers in an
article for the NewsandSentinel.com, “often those who start fires are repeat offenders.” If two of their last three homes have gone up in flames, you may want to politely decline them, and look for other applicants.
By exercising some due diligence and upkeep, you can be a highly-effective property manager and keep the residences you oversee in tip-top shape and generating a positive revenue stream for years to come, as opposed to watching a previously-lucrative building burn to the ground and having to wonder why things went wrong.