The Iceman Is Back: Dealing with the Cold and Snow as a Landlord

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“What if?”

Those two words keep many landlords awake at night. The longer they manage their own property and the more properties they manage, the more nights they ask themselves, “What If?”

What if someone slips on the icy sidewalk adjoining your property and decides to sue when they learn it’s a rental? Your lease clearly says that your tenant, who in every other way is the best tenant you’ve ever had, is responsible for snow and ice removal. Except he’s in his sixties and cant really wield a shovel anymore. So you choice is to pay the medical bill or lose a good tenant.

It’s that time of year again. The iceman is back. I live in Minnesota, and we don’t take winter lightly.

Clearing snow and ice from rental premises is one of the most acrimonious issues in landlord/tenant relations. As a rule of thumb, multifamily landlords take care of this problem since most have building managers and staff whereas single family landlords put it in the lease and expect tenants to handle it. Except many tenants do as little as humanly possible. Things can get even stickier when more than one tenant lives in a property and nobody take responsibility.

Dealing with the Snow

Snow removal is in a different category than lawn care, shrub trimming, sprinklers, leaf cleanup or any other outdoor maintenance chore. It’s cold, it’s wet, it requires the proper tools, it’s hard work and it can’t wait. More than one landlord finds himself at an impasse with tenants over the issue.

“This came up in my Realtor’s office when my tenants and I were going over our written lease for 2 hours. These tenants had a relative who managed an apartment complex, so they were very familiar with how a rental complex is run. To them, a rental is a rental whether it’s for a house or an apartment in a complex. They had the wrong idea that they would get the same 24/7 maintenance service for my house as they would expect to get in a complex. So in their minds it was a better deal to rent a whole house and get lots more living space, than to pay high rent on a small apartment in a complex.

“My tenants were astounded that they would have to take care of snow removal. They actually thought that I would hire someone to plow the snow for them each and every time it snowed (or maybe they thought I’d drive 45 minutes with a shovel in the back of my car and dig them out).

“That misconception on my tenants’ part caused many problems over the course of their tenancy. No matter how many times they were told by their own lawyer, my lawyer, myself, their Realtor, they just wouldn’t accept the fact they were on their own with maintenance. I threw in lawn care, shrub trimming, sprinklers, leaf cleanup – there was very little they had to do on the exterior, and I didn’t want the place to turn into a wreck – but I drew the line at snow removal,” wrote one Long Island landlord, who may have become a “what if” worrier every time snow was forecast.

Tips for Helping Your Tenants Deal With Snow

There are other solutions. Here are a few.

  • Inform Them. Make absolutely sure that your tenants understand their snow and ice removal responsibilities. Walks refreeze at night. Snow can fall for several days. Keeping walks clear means checking every day and salting. Point out to them the language in the lease that makes them responsible. Explain to them what happens if someone should slip, fall and sue.
  • Empower Them. Buy a bag of sidewalk salt and a snow shovel and drop them by at the beginning of winter to remind them of their responsibilities. Send them reminders with their monthly rental invoices.
  • Police Them. If you live nearby, check up on your tenants after a storm. Remind them that they are liable should anyone fall. Let them know how important it is.
  • Charge Them. If none of the above works or if you have multiple properties, consider hiring a small contractor with snow blowers, plows and strong backs to clear the sidewalks and drives of your properties, then charge your tenants for the service. Have the service written into your leases; you can make it either optional or mandatory. If you have suburban properties with long drives and walks, this might be a good solution that saves everybody money, maintains good will and gets the job done.

    Photo: Instant Vantage

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About Author

Brenton (G+) is a professional landlord and a serial real estate entrepreneur, with diplomas from Harvard Business School in Real Estate Management, and Entrepreneurial Development from Massachusetts Institue of Technology (MIT).

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