Frozen pipes because tenant left door open -- who's responsible?

14 Replies

Situation is this: tenant informs me that the door to the walkout basement (currently unfinished/storage) is open, but that nothing seems to be missing/damaged. Hypothesis: the wind blew it open. I tell him to just close it up and I'll take a look next week when I'm in town. 

Then, the worst icestorm of 30 years comes through, and the pipes freeze. Come to find out, the basement door actually was torn off of 2/3 hinges and is frozen wide open, so zero degree wind is whipping into the basement, clearly causing the pipes to freeze.

Now, I'm gonna fix them, no issue (good tenant with a good relationship), but it occurred to me that I'm not entirely sure where the liability lies on this one.

Clearly, the fact that he didn't accurately report to me the status of the basement door was the reason the pipes froze, but I'm not totally clear on whether or not that has bearing here.

Thoughts?

I would think that if he actually left the door open it would be his fault. You would think that he would have been down to the basement before it had time to get that cold/happen but who knows. 

If a tenant refuses to turn the heat on and pipes freeze it is on them. 

Ryan Dossey, Real Estate Agent in IN (#RB15001099)
800-347-9296

@JT Spangler   Why does it always have to be somebody's fault?!  Things happen. It's your house...just fix it and move on.  

The tenant is not going to take responsibility for this if you confront them about it.  If the tenant is a good tenant like you have said then I would probably just repair the issue and move on like you have mentioned you will probably do anyway.

Michael Noto, Real Estate Agent in CT (#RES.0799665)
860-384-7570
Originally posted by @Account Closed :

@JT Spangler   Why does it always have to be somebody's fault?!  Things happen. It's your house...just fix it and move on.  

After you heard that the wind blew open the door originally, did you take any steps to make sure that the wind could not blow open the door again?

I'm no lawyer, so no legal advice here, but it seams to me the tenant DID report the problem so he fulfilled his obligation.  One might argue that you did not respond in a timely manor, resulting in the damage to the pipes.  I agree with Michael, just fix it and move on.  I don't see how you win the argument and you're liable to piss off what otherwise is a "good tenant".

The tenant they should have been smart enough to leave the water running a little 

I live in PA; last week we had a pair of days with close to -20 wind chill.  I came home and found one of my basement/cellar doors blown open as well.  Fortunately there is a second set of doors behind it; but sometimes it happens.  Without being there it seems tough to 'win' the argument and maybe lose a good tenant.

I would take it as a valuable lesson in miscommunication, to be much more specific in the future, like Can you secure it properly, and, if they say, Yes, then follow up with, Thank you, and please check on it and call me if it opens again before I get down there.  I likely annoy my tenants with all the questions if they report any issues as I'm always thinking if what they are reporting is somehow an emergency visit, can wait til I can schedule a repair, or wait til I can take care of it myself next time I'm down.  Tenants don't usually think about an issue from the perspective of something damaging the house as much as whether or not it inconveniences them in some way, so I need to make sure I'm asking the right questions so my priorities are protected as well.              

Originally posted by @Dawn Anastasi :
Originally posted by @Art Allen:

@JT Spangler  Why does it always have to be somebody's fault?!  Things happen. It's your house...just fix it and move on.  

After you heard that the wind blew open the door originally, did you take any steps to make sure that the wind could not blow open the door again?

 The agreement was that he was going to do that, and I'd repair it when I got back to town the next week. So, yeah.

@Rob Gleason , @Art Allen you've missed the point by quite a ways. My question was not "How do I handle the situation?" (you might note that I've already got it handled), rather, it was "Anyone have thoughts on where the liability lies, should a more serious and expensive version of this story take place at some point?"

As I said initially, the fix is in and the tenant is aware that we're going to have to communicate better, so all is good in that regard. 

Thanks for all of your input. :)

This sounds like an issue where renters insurance might help in the future. 

As I see it this is not really all that different from telling the tenant to let the water drip and open the cabinet doors so the pipes don't freeze and the tenant not doing it. I that case the tenant would be liable. (Good luck proving it!) That being said, if the tenant did close the door it is possible the wind or person that opened it last time came back and opened it again.

I send all of my tenants a text when we have cold weather issues to remind them to turn on the faucets and keep the cabinet doors open. 

@Account Closed  You are correct things happen, but if a tenant chooses to not follow instructions and take reasonable care of the property fault can be placed on them. Its not all that different from falling asleep on the couch and starting a grease fire.

This sounds like a freak thing.  Someone isn't always at fault in every situation and being that the home is located in the South, I highly doubt your pipes are insulated (which would definitely help). 

Originally posted by @Thomas B.:

This sounds like an issue where renters insurance might help in the future. 

I send all of my tenants a text when we have cold weather issues to remind them to turn on the faucets and keep the cabinet doors open. 

 Hi JT!  I would concur with all of Thomas' points here, especially the above.  It might be difficult to prove that the tenant was liable if the door did blow open again.  It seems that you both did what you could - you, by advising to shut the door and that you would be out to assess the situation/secure the property as soon as you are able and your tenant, by making sure the door is shut.  It could have blown open again or they could have been negligent...

That stated renters' insurance is very valuable for both your tenant and you.  If they were to be responsible for damage, you would then be able to first lean on their coverage to pay for damages before having to rely on your own coverage, keeping your claims history clean.  There are typically 5 common perils that are covered under renters' insurance: Theft, Fire and Smoke, Vandalism, Water Damage, and Liability.  They, of course, get coverage for their "stuff" if it gets damaged by one of the first 4 perils in the list.

Thomas also has a great point about texting his tenants when there is cold weather.  Humans in general are forgetful and your mind is much more focused on preserving your property than even your best tenant.  Many of the most common losses (fire, water damage from pipes bursting for ex.) are preventable and usually don't take a whole lot of effort to avoid.

Lastly, I would just say that documenting any conversations in regards to repairs you are planning to do when a situation like this arises is always best.  If you have to get either insurance company involved, the more documentation that you have on the specifics of the event, the better.  It will help them get to a resolution more quickly and any settlement will also be more accurate.

Hope that helps... happy to help with any other insurance issues or anything about preventing losses at your property.  Good luck! 

-BreAnn

Originally posted by @Lynn M. :

I would take it as a valuable lesson in miscommunication, to be much more specific in the future, like Can you secure it properly, and, if they say, Yes, then follow up with, Thank you, and please check on it and call me if it opens again before I get down there.  I likely annoy my tenants with all the questions if they report any issues as I'm always thinking if what they are reporting is somehow an emergency visit, can wait til I can schedule a repair, or wait til I can take care of it myself next time I'm down.  Tenants don't usually think about an issue from the perspective of something damaging the house as much as whether or not it inconveniences them in some way, so I need to make sure I'm asking the right questions so my priorities are protected as well.              

Absolutely... clarifying communication is key. One of our tenants reported a "tree limb" had blown down during a wind storm and was blocking the "path". We assumed she meant a little used pathway on the side of the house and planned to take care of it on our weekly maintenance day. Then the neighbors called and told us it was a tree on our property that blew down across the back alley used by the neighbors and garbage trucks. Big difference!