Landlording during an emergency like coronavirus (or any natural disaster) can be a scary and nerve-wracking experience. You worry about you and your family, as well as your tenants’ safety and well-being. And you’re also concerned about your real estate investment business.
Will your property be okay? What resources are available if you need to repair and rebuild? How long will you go without rental income? Having an emergency plan can help in advance—but if you’re caught by surprise, ease your panic by knowing these simple strategies and solutions. You will come out stronger on the other side.
Trust me. I know.
Being a landlord in Houston, Texas, I have endured my fair share of natural disasters. On day one of Hurricane Ike, our properties lost more than 20 roofs. Rain poured into the residences. My team had to stop the emergency, deal with damaged personal property, keep the homes safe and habitable, and, finally, coordinate roofers to fix, repair, patch, or at least tarp the roofs. Not to mention dealing with the insurance company, which can be a monumental task, causing stress levels to go through the roof—no pun intended.
The Basic Elements of Landlording During an Emergency
I’m both a pilot and a real estate investor—and during emergencies, I find my two careers have a surprising amount in common. My pilot’s training is directly relevant to landlording during an emergency. At its core: When confronting a crisis, take a breath. Doing so reduces your stress level and gives your mind a moment to process what’s happening.
Next, designate who’s in charge of the situation and delegate responsibilities. This distinction is essential if you have business partners. But even if you’re flying solo, you may have tenants.
First, they need to know you’re in control. Second, there may be tasks you need them to complete—such as boarding up windows before a hurricane. Identify who’s in charge, delegate responsibilities, and understand the tasks you need to complete.
To do so, specify and define the problems you’re facing. Tackle each challenge one-by-one, focusing on the solution, not the problem. Dwelling on the issue only increases your anxiety, and it doesn’t remedy the predicament. Instead, put your energy into overcoming the obstacle.
Throughout the process, over-communicate with everyone involved. In an airplane, that’s your co-pilot, crew, and air traffic control. In real estate investment, there’s a long list of people with whom you should communicate, such as lenders, property managers, and business partners. You also may need to connect with government officials, first responders, insurance agents, and local authorities.
Handling a crisis as a pilot requires planning. The same is true of landlording: You’re responsible for ensuring your tenants remain safe, protecting your property, and knowing what’s expected of you if disaster strikes. That’s where an emergency management plan comes in.
Why Landlords Need an Emergency Management Plan
The best time to plan for an emergency is before one occurs.
Without a plan, your property, finances, and stress level may suffer greater damage. A natural disaster, like a hurricane, could cause you to lose essential documents needed to get your investment business back up and running. And, most importantly, you or your tenant may suffer personal harm or injury. It’s too risky not to organize for landlording during an emergency. And as a business owner, it can be irresponsible for you not to pre-think these possible challenges before they happen.
During an emergency is not the time to create a plan.
If you’ve hired a property management company, ask them if they have an emergency management plan. If so, ensure they’ve provided that information to your tenants.
But if your property management company doesn’t have a disaster response plan, or if you aren’t working with such a company, you’re responsible for creating an emergency management plan. Fortunately, this guide can help.
Below, we’ll cover why you need an emergency management plan and what it should include. We’ll talk about creating an emergency supply kit for you and your tenants. And we’ll walk through how you should handle a crisis.
As an extra resource, you can use the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) checklist of items to consider including in your plan. While FEMA’s list is for a broad audience, it’s a robust framework and excellent starting point.
Ask your insurance provider and local authorities to review your completed plan. This extra step improves the emergency preparedness for you and your tenants.
Once your plan and emergency supply kit are ready, you need to make sure your renter knows about and has access to both. The best time to do this is at move-in. Show them the location of smoke detectors, fire extinguishers, fire exits, and utility shut-offs.
For multifamily properties or apartment complexes, make sure residents know where all the emergency exits are located. Verify their emergency contact info, and encourage them to install FEMA’s mobile app on their phones.
Now you know why you need an emergency management plan. Let’s talk about what to include.
What to Include in Your Emergency Plan
You need to make two emergency management plans: one for your business and one for your tenant. The plan you make for yourself is what you need to know and do as a landlord. The plan you prepare for your tenant tells them how to stay safe, including any specific information about your property.
The version you make for yourself should include:
- A maintenance checklist, including fire extinguishers
- Instructions for shutting off water, gas, and electricity to your property
- Contact details for local emergency agencies, contractors, and your insurance provider
- The tenant emergency guide
The plan you give your tenants should focus on their safety. List everything they need to know about the property, including the location of:
- Fire extinguishers
- Fire exits
- Water shut-offs
- Electrical panels
- Evacuation plans
Let your tenants know how you’ll communicate with them in an emergency. Give them contact information for local agencies, and remind them about FEMA’s mobile app. Also, incorporate info about registering as safe on the Red Cross’ website in the event of a natural disaster.
Some locations, such as those in hurricane-prone areas, have pre-planned evacuation routes. Include this information in your plan, if available where you’re located.
Likewise, some events require staying in place. Your plan should account for this scenario as well. FEMA provides guidelines for sheltering in the event of an emergency.
If you allow pets at your rental property, take animal safety into account as well. The American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) provides rescue alert stickers that make it easy to identify if pets are inside a home. You might want to give these stickers to your tenants. For more insight on pet safety during an emergency, you can visit resources from FEMA and ASPCA.
Putting your plan and resources in a tabbed binder is a handy way to organize your emergency management plan. Doing so makes it easy to access information when you need it. And the tabs allow you and your tenant to find details quickly, which may be necessary during a crisis. Send them an electronic version of the document stored in the cloud, too, as well as pictures of all the shut-off locations in case they can no longer access the unit.
Another significant factor in preparing for an emergency is geography. Different locations need to prepare for different disasters. There’s no need to prepare for hurricanes in Minneapolis; it’s unlikely you’ll encounter a city-shuttering blizzard in Miami. That’s why it’s crucial to understand the risks in your area.
Understand Your Area’s Risks
You can use the National Center for Disaster Preparedness’ Natural Hazards Index to help identify what risks your area faces. The Index identifies a county’s natural disaster danger. It tracks 11 potential hazards, including wildfires, tornados, hurricanes, flooding, and earthquakes.
Flooding is the most common natural emergency—and it’s something every landlord should prepare for, regardless of where you’re located. Between 1996 and 2019, 99 percent of U.S. counties experienced a flooding event. You can assess your property’s flood risk by entering the address into FEMA’s Flood Map Service.
Another danger all rental properties face is fire. U.S. fire departments responded to an average of 354,400 home fires each year between 2013 and 2017. These fires caused nearly 14,000 deaths and injuries and $6.9 billion in property damage.
That’s why you must take steps to increase your tenants’ safety before the emergency occurs.
First, install functioning smoke detectors. Once you do, check monthly to ensure the detectors are working correctly.
Make sure your property’s windows can open, and that tenants can remove security bars or screens from the inside. Ensure the electrical cords on your appliances aren’t frayed or damaged. Provide fire extinguishers, keep them up to date, and let your tenants know where they’re located.
Visit Ready.gov for more guidance on preparing for particular disasters, from tornadoes to hurricanes. The information isn’t specific to landlords, but you can adapt the advice to your needs.
After understanding your regional risks, the next step is knowing how you’ll get information if a situation unfolds.
How to Stay Informed
Information is vital in an emergency. The more you know, the safer and better off you and your tenants will be. That’s why you need to make sure you have a way to receive details from authorities.
For information, you’ll want to rely on the federal, state, and local government agencies responsible for disseminating facts and guidance in an emergency. On the national level, look to agencies like FEMA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the Centers for Disease Control. Their websites and social media will likely have updates, but you can also install FEMA’s mobile application. The Red Cross provides many mobile apps for staying up to date in emergencies and natural disasters, too.
For weather-related information, use a NOAA Weather Radio with tone alert. FEMA recommends including such a device, or a battery-powered or hand-cranked radio, in your emergency supply kit. That way, you won’t be cut off from the outside world if you lose electricity and cell phone service.
And what about state and local emergency agencies? You can use this page from FEMA to access links to these organizations in your area.
Along with staying updated, you need to ensure you have access to other types of information—stored in the digital cloud or in airtight plastic bags or fireproof safes, if necessary:
- Financial, personal, and business records
- Insurance policies and insurance agents’ contact info
- Names and contact info of your contractors and other vendors
- Online usernames and passwords.
If you don’t already have a power of attorney in place, do so now. Who will make decisions on your behalf if something happens to you? Answer that question, work with your lawyer to make it legal, and include that documentation in your emergency supply kit.
Additional Resources for Landlords
Want to know more about landlord emergency preparedness? Sign up for BiggerPockets and download our full guide from Steve Rozenberg—including:
- How to develop an emergency plan
- Sample letters for tenants
- An emergency preparedness checklist for real estate investors
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