Landlording & Rental Properties

You Can Avoid After-Hours Phone Calls From Tenants—Here’s How

Expertise: Mortgages & Creative Financing, Business Management, Landlording & Rental Properties, Commercial Real Estate, Real Estate Deal Analysis & Advice, Real Estate Investing Basics, Personal Development, Real Estate News & Commentary
219 Articles Written
Upset household calling roof repair service while water leaking from ceiling

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Probably the thing that scares new landlords and property managers the most is what to do when a tenant calls at 2 a.m. because water is shooting out of their pipes in all directions. This fear is so paralyzing, in fact, I've heard stories where people eschewed becoming a landlord just to avoid it. Some have hired a property manager instead of managing themselves for only that reason.

Indeed, hiring a manager is one option, but there will still be some oversight involved. And if you do manage yourself, there are certainly ways to deal with these problems. You just have to have a plan going into it.

Here’s how to be prepared for the inevitable emergency calls you will get.

How to Handle Emergency Maintenance

The most important thing to do right off the bat is to accept that emergency maintenance will happen. It is a fact of life. Don’t cross your fingers and hope for the best. Accept it will come from time to time and plan how to handle it.

The second is to figure out what exactly is emergency maintenance, anyway? What’s not?

Related: When Is a Landlord’s Maintenance Emergency Truly An Emergency?

If it is a fire, that is an emergency. But the resident needs to call the fire department, not you. If there was a break-in, that is also an emergency. But they need to call the police.

Regarding maintenance issues, the rule of thumb we like to use is that a tenant should not be able to expect faster service than if they were a homeowner. Even if it’s cold outside and the furnace goes out, it can probably wait until tomorrow. (Although, if that happens on Friday night, you should probably fix it on Saturday and not wait until Monday.) If there’s ice all over the roads and there is a snowstorm going on, you cannot get out there any quicker than it it was a homeowner who called an HVAC company.

The vast majority of “real” emergencies fall into one of three categories:

  1. Water leak
  2. Sewage backup
  3. No functional toilet

I would possibly add a severe roof leak to that list, but you can’t fix a roof in the middle of a downpour. Still, you can bring some large buckets and the like to hopefully prevent any major damage from taking place.

Most other things can wait until the next day—or even for a few days. So, you need to have thick skin or hire a property manager to deal with tenants. If you let your residents get relatively trivial maintenance issues taken care of at 2 a.m., more and more things will become "emergencies."

Otherwise, how you handle emergency maintenance will depend a great deal on how you are managing your properties.

Related: The No. 1 Way to Keep Tenants Happy

summer rain with hail falls on the roof of slate

Third-Party Property Manager

If you choose to hire a third-party management company, the important thing is to ask them how they handle emergency maintenance. You want to make sure they:

  1. Have a good plan in place
  2. Take care of serious issues consistently and quickly
  3. Classify emergency and non-emergency issues correctly, and handle each appropriately

You want to ask if they charge extra for emergency maintenance, too. If so, how much? It’s not unreasonable to have a fee, but it should not be very substantial.

It’s also essential to set a limit on how much a property manager can spend without your permission. Common limits are $300, $500, and $1,000. I would recommend $500 to start. Then, maybe up it to $1,000 if they prove their worth. Keep in mind that given certain emergencies may require expensive fixes, you may on very rare occasions get a late-night call from a property management company.

Once you hire a management company, it’s not a bad idea to ask from time to time how many emergency maintenance requests there have been. Have there been any complaints from tenants regarding maintenance? Hold their feet to the fire and make sure they understand this is important.

And if you have issues with their maintenance or your rate of turnover is high, do not be afraid to switch management companies. Remember, maintenance and customer service are basically synonymous in property management.

DIY Maintenance

The biggest thing to remember is that you cannot do everything yourself—no matter what you might think. There are things you will need to find contractors for, particularly regarding plumbing and sewage backups.

The nice part is that in virtually every city there is a Roto-Rooter or Snake ‘n’ Rooter that you can call at any time of the day or night. Unfortunately, they are pretty expensive. If possible, find another less-expensive plumber you can call in case of emergencies.

Related: How to Be a Landlord: Top 12 Tips for Success

I would also recommend not handing out your cell phone number to residents. Use a Google Voice number for maintenance or have it routed through your office line (if you have one). Indeed, we usually have the tenants leave a message and then call back immediately. (You will need to keep your phone by you and make sure you will be able to take these calls.) It will just become too much of a hassle otherwise, as many residents will call you directly about every little thing.

Finally, you need to have thick skin. Sometimes you need to say "no" and get to it tomorrow. It helps to make sure the resident is fully aware of what is and what is not an emergency when you sign the lease. Our lease signings go for an hour, because we want them to know all the rules in and out. We want to be able to reference them when residents call. Walking them through your processes, which should be clearly defined in your lease, will make it less likely they call for a non-emergency and easier to say no if they do.

worker standing on roof installing new tiles

Contractors or Vendors

Let's say you decide to self-manage but contract out the maintenance. There are maintenance companies in many areas specifically for people who self-manage rentals. If you decide to use one of them, make sure to ask the same questions you would to a third-party property manager. Then, once hired, follow up to make sure they are performing well. Asking your residents for feedback is a particularly good idea here.

And keep in mind that, as mentioned above, whether you intend to DIY or contract out the bulk of your property maintenance, there may be times when a professional has to be called in to deal with major issues. Not even a third-party maintenance company is equipped to handle all tasks.

How to Hire Maintenance Techs as Employees

There’s a lot to say about hiring top-notch maintenance techs. Let’s discuss it briefly, and here’s a great resource if you’d like to read about it more in-depth: “The Quick Guide to Hiring For Entrepreneurs: How to On-Board Quality Team Members.”

In brief, the sit-down interview is less important with maintenance and construction workers than office staff—because they can’t easily prove their skills sitting around a desk. However, cosider giving a short quiz on maintenance topics to applicants to make sure they know what they are talking about. Also, call references and ask for feedback.

The first few weeks should be a tryout for any new-hire. If you already have a maintenance technician you trust on staff, have the new employee go around with the trusted one for a week or two to get a feel for their ability and work ethic. Received a lot of complaints from residents? That’s a good sign to move on.

As far as emergencies go, make sure in the interview that each maintenance tech knows emergency maintenance is part of the job. Once hired, let them know who to call if they cannot perform the repair. And if you have more than one maintenance technician, put them on a revolving schedule in terms of who is “on call.” No one wants to be on call all of the time. (So if you have two techs, for example, schedule one the first week and the other the next week.)

Have techs record everything they do (even if it is telling the resident the repair will not be until tomorrow) in your property management software so you can review it at your will.

The Bottom Line

Emergency maintenance does not happen often. For each unit, it will happen, on average, less than once a year. Just make a plan and follow through on that plan. Don’t let the fear of emergency maintenance keep you away from buying rental properties or getting a good night’s sleep.

What’s the most tragic emergency maintenance issue you’ve encountered or heard about?

Share in the comment section below.

Andrew Syrios has been investing in real estate for over a decade and is a partner with Stewardship Investments, LLC along with his brother Phillip ...
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    Steve Vaughan Rental Property Investor from East Wenatchee, WA
    Replied about 2 months ago
    Great topic, Andrew. Something I do at lease signing is show them where the shut-off valves are for all fixtures and the main if a house. Have an 'emergency'? Shut it off and text me during business hours. I'll also show them the breaker box and point out a few things. Good article!
    Andrew Syrios Residential Real Estate Investor from Kansas City, MO
    Replied about 2 months ago
    Thanks Steve. And yes, shut off valves (and telling residents how to use them) are great!
    Shayee Senbore
    Replied about 2 months ago
    Hi Andrew, Thanks for the article. I have a quick question. Where would "the fridge has broken and is not cooling" fall in the 3 "real" emergency categories you mentioned? Especially knowing that according to the USDA, food that has gone 12 hours without refrigeration should be thrown out. So unless I am willing to pay to replace everything in my tenants fridge, I'd assume I'd have to get on this right away, correct?
    Andrew Syrios Residential Real Estate Investor from Kansas City, MO
    Replied about 2 months ago
    That's a tough one. Usually, when a fridge goes out (in my experience) it's a power outage that is outside of our control. If it's the fridge itself, it would require our appliance repairman, and that's going to be on their schedule, probably the next day. Most stuff will keep for over 12 hours, but some stuff might have to be thrown out. Generally in this case, we get our vendor out there as soon as possible (unlikely to be that night). The resident, after all, cannot expect faster service than a homeowner could get.
    Ravindra Jain
    Replied about 2 months ago
    I would consider to purchase immediately a small refrigerator - 3 to 6 cu ft - to meet the emergency while I would look into getting the large home refrigertor repaired or replaced, which may take a few days of time. For this purpose, I myself used to keep a portable refrigerator in stock for my rentals. At the present time, I have newer appliances for all my rentals, so the risk of going a fridge bad is very low. But, if any appliance does need to be replaced, I have the business policy to replace it with a new one with a good quality brand name rather than a used one.
    Tanyal Bricthorn
    Replied about 2 months ago
    I would not consider a warm fridge a 2-AM emergency. The tenant can always get a few bags of ice to keep things cool for a day or two if necessary.
    Andrew Syrios Residential Real Estate Investor from Kansas City, MO
    Replied about 2 months ago
    I would generally agree. Although I would come out on a Saturday if the fridge went out Friday night and not wait until Monday.
    Derek J. Gelber Flipper/Rehabber from South Georgia
    Replied about 2 months ago
    Does anyone have a triage binder that I could use for a template??? Thank you!
    Scott Tucker Real Estate Agent from Blue Springs, Missouri
    Replied about 1 month ago
    Another great article Andrew! I feel like a lot of landlords stress over the worst case scenarios too often when in in actuality, it rarely happens. Setting proper expectations like you mentioned (not expecting faster service than a homeowner) is a great mentality to have to calm oneself down and understand that the landlord and tenant both want the problem fixed, but it's not going to happen until a qualified professional shows up and fixes it.
    Cassandra Vickers from Boston, MA
    Replied about 1 month ago
    If the food does go bad, should I reimburse my tenant for the cost of food?
    Andrew Syrios Residential Real Estate Investor from Kansas City, MO
    Replied about 1 month ago
    I don't believe you're under an obligation to do so but it wouldn't be bad to offer a bit of a rent discount or something like that.