Negligence causes pipes to freeze. Who is at fault?

20 Replies

Every time my tenant would leave, they would turn their heat off (hwbb) to save money. I told them not to do that because you’re not really saving that much AND the cost of a frozen or ruptured pipe is WAY more that what they would ever save on a gas bill. SO......about a month later, they say they have no heat after being away for a few days. Come to find out, one of the sections along an exterior wall is frozen. It costs $400 to unfreeze and get the water moving again. There is no way that pipe freezes with 170° water moving through it, so the heat had to be turned off (yet again) for a period of time. Who is responsible for the cost of the service call?

For now I would have to say you.It is your property and ultimately you are responsible for everything.Some tenants tend to be selective at what they here and what they do not.“telling them verbally” often times is not as effective as “telling them in writing”.The latter also protects you when you have to go to court and/or charge for damages.I like this post as it now makes me go to reinforce my own lease language by giving examples of just what the repercussions will be.My tenants are aware “NOT” to turn off heat when away for vacation during winter time as I spell this out in my lease agreement and now I am going to add to up the cost of this on my damages addendum that also spells out what they are facing in terms of damages on certain things.I always have the statement in there that the prices shown are just estimates, but management will charge the cost of the replacement using current year costs, to include labor.When tenants see a price to something, they freak out and are more inclined to comply.Another suggestion is to add yourself to their Utility accounts as a backup so that the service provider never shuts down utilities for lack of payment.In a case like that, the bill will be sent to you before they shut off utilities thereby protecting your property from pipe freeze.You can threaten to charge them half the cost just to see if they will.They may fight you on that but at least it will register and make them more responsible next time.Sounds like you have some big babies for tenants and need to do some babysitting.Ugggghhhhh.Good luck though and great post as it makes me make not to reinforce my existing lease just to ensure I am applying the same advice, I am giving to you.

@Dan Crenshaw

If the boiler has an anti-freeze setting, I would have it enabled and configured, if not, you can install a control to override the internal thermostat which will keep the house at a minimum temperature and will run the boiler every X minutes/hours as a freeze prevention.

We have it written in the lease that tenants must maintain a minimum heat of 10C in the unit even when they are away, and that they will be responsible for any costs arising from frozen plumbing within the conditioned space of the unit.

Where this is not the first time your tenants have done this I would pass though the service costs to them.  I would also consider serving them notice their lease will not be renewed prior to its next anniversary.

Although it rarely gets down below freezing here in Georgia (and if it does it is for a very short period of time) we do have a clause in our lease that a tenant is to leave a faucet on a slow drip should the temperature drop below this level.  

On many of my landlord forums this issue of frozen/burst pipes in other parts of the country always seems to pop up every winter.   The issue is often worse during the holidays when tenants may leave for an extended period of time and shut the heat off to save money. 

In your case, your cheapo tenants may have learned their lesson; it's tempting to let them sit a while in their cold residence until the idea that you DON'T leave for a few days in freezing weather and allow pipes that supply heat to freeze up.  You might consider adding a clause to the current lease that addresses this issue and have both you and them initial this, especially since we're just really seeing the beginning of cold winter months.

At any rate, you have tenants in a very tenant friendly state; because of this, I'd say the bill is on you.  Any previous discussion you've had with them has been verbal; nothing in writing.   They can always claim that "no one told them this" and you would have nothing to prove that you did.  Thus, my suggestion regarding adding this clause to your lease so these cheapos don't cost you additional money in frozen (or worse; burst pipes) this winter.

Gail

We have an “Inclement Weather” clause in our lease that requires heat be left to a specified minimum and windows remain closed and if this is not followed, tenant is responsible for frozen pipes or other conditions related to not following this. Never had an issue since adding this clause!

Here it is, verbatim:

INCLEMENT WEATHER: Tenant shall close all windows, doors, and other building openings
tightly when leaving the premises to prevent damage from the elements to the premises. When
tenants are away from the premises during the heating season, the thermostat shall be placed at a
minimum of 60 degrees to avoid freezing of pipes and other damage. If this is not followed,
tenant(s) is/are responsible for damages and all costs caused by frozen pipes and open doors or windows.

Tenant Initial
1____2____3____4____

You are ultimately responsible because you were aware they were doing it and did not adequately protect yourself. You should have used documented protocol by serving them with a notice to correct or a eviction notice.

Too late now but never skip the proper legal process in the future regardless of the tenant issue may be. Always follow the proper documented process when dealing with tenants.

just to make them aware of the need what about:

Tenant understands that the winter temperature in Albany County NY annually fall well below freezing. Frozen and burst pipes are very possible and probable if precautions and adequate heating is not applied.

Anytime the outside temperature is to or falls below 32 degrees Fahrenheit Tenant agrees to:

1.Maintain an internal premise temperature of 60 degrees Fahrenheit, and to take advanced precautions if Tenant leaves the premise for an extended time i.e. vacation, trips, hospital stays etc.Keep the thermostat set to the same temperature both during the day and at night during this period.

2.If tenant does not believe there is adequate heating appliances to keep the premises above 60 degrees they are to immediately notify the landlord who will at its expense deliver additional heating units.

3.Keep kitchen and bathroom cabinet doors open to allow heat to reach uninsulated pipe near exterior walls.

4.Let the hot & cold water drip from the faucet served by exposed pipes. Running water through the pipe - even at a trickle - helps prevent pipes from freezing.

5.If applicable turn off from inside the building exterior water/hose faucets.

Has anyone ever considered getting Nest thermostats for their rental properties? You can connect multiple devices to multiple thermostats. You can see and control the thermostat temperature from your phone from anywhere. It also has an eco setting that you can set it to when you leave home. I live in the south where the temperature usually stays above freezing, but for those that live up north, this might be a good solution. I have 2 of these thermostats in my house. One for upstairs and one for downstairs. Just an idea. Only problem is that they are a little spendy. $240 on Amazon, but you only have to buy it once.

Originally posted by @Sergiu Ionita :

Has anyone ever considered getting Nest thermostats for their rental properties? You can connect multiple devices to multiple thermostats. You can see and control the thermostat temperature from your phone from anywhere. It also has an eco setting that you can set it to when you leave home. I live in the south where the temperature usually stays above freezing, but for those that live up north, this might be a good solution. I have 2 of these thermostats in my house. One for upstairs and one for downstairs. Just an idea. Only problem is that they are a little spendy. $240 on Amazon, but you only have to buy it once.

We've tried the Nest in two of our properties - the proprietary nature of their interface made them difficult to integrate with our management & monitoring system.

That said, there are other thermostats which provide a minimum and maximum temperature (regardless of what the occupant chooses) at a fraction of the price (Honeywell, Braeburn and {I think} Sinopé provide models with this feature).   You also have the option of using commercial thermostats (where this is a common option).  In the U.S.A. you also have Landlord Thermostats (no good up here as they do not speak Celsius).

@Gail K. "cheapos" LOL, I love it, but for real, tenants can really try your patience with the silly things they do.  It is up to us as landlords to help train them to comply with the policies that help protect our investment.  Often times you will find those that will try to challenge you as I did upon first ever property purchase where I inherited the tenants.  I just about almost pulled my hair out with that bunch that wanted to run things like they owned it.  A part of me would speak "internal voice" why don't you go buy your own place where you can smoke inside (including weed), leave your space heaters unattended, have 20 plus smelly rabbits, bring in the homeless, pile up crap in the garage to where it is a no-walk or "walk at your own risk zone", drink and wake up every morning yelling and screaming at each other all while waking up the entire peaceful quiet cul de sac, change locks at will.......OMG the list goes on.  In the end, we parted ways.  Good thing was I was documenting all this, which will always be your best defense in court as tenants will look you straight in the eye and swear you never told them...... uuggghhhhhh.  I love the suggestion of the slow drip.  I am fortunate to have some very mature and smart tenants that do not need to be told this but you cannot assume that of all tenants so best to remove any uncertainity by saying it in writing in the lease they sign.

I would with hold the cost from their security deposit, and advise them if it happens again you will be evicting them.  Tenants need to maintain the property they live in, and turning down the heat in the winter is one of the stupidest and most damaging things they can do.

@Sergiu Ionita , never heard of them but I have marked this post and will look into this.  so do you control the temperature or do the tenants?  I don't want to add on more work for myself and/or infringe on their privacy/space by dictating what temperatures the home has to be in, but at the same time they are aware that dropping below 60 during winter time is not ideal.  So I guess if they are home and leave, can they not just set the temp on the control panel?  Am sure these are useful, I don't doubt that, but I am just wondering how to use them in a rental to where they show advantage over tenant just adjusting/setting temp on control panel.

@Anna M. Anyone who connects their phone to the thermostat can see what the temperature is in the house and also control the temperature through the Nest app. Your tenants can connect to it with their phone and you can connect to it with your phone as well. You can also rename the thermostats so you know which thermostat is for which property. So to answer your question, yes, the tenants can change the temperature and you can as well. 

Depends on your lease - like others ours set a minimum temperature.  I also message all my tenants in early November and remind them and also suggest leaving the water at a slow drip if hey are going to be gone more than 3 days

@Dan Crenshaw does your lease address the problem? Even if it does not directly mention the heat, it may mention negligence or something similar. Being notified that it is unsafe to do and then doing it anyway would be negligent. If not, it is your cost and you should update your lease so in the future this does not happen.

Do not take from the security deposit while they are still living there. Bill them directly and follow your lease as to how that works.

I would say it is the owner who will need to work better with tenants. 

For water heater, it is unlikely to heat to 170 deg. If it is that hot people will suffer.  Hot water threshold is <120 deg (tank)  or <110 deg (tankless). A better way to handle is let water drip to keep water flowing.

Originally posted by @Sam Shueh :

I would say it is the owner who will need to work better with tenants. 

For water heater, it is unlikely to heat to 170 deg. If it is that hot people will suffer.  Hot water threshold is <120 deg (tank)  or <110 deg (tankless). A better way to handle is let water drip to keep water flowing.

But 170F is in the normal range for hydronic baseboard heat.

Thanks everyone for your replies and advice!  

@Rick Ferguson I like that list you have.  I'm going to have to come up with something like that to add to my lease.

@Russell Brazil I agree with you 1000%.  You would think something like that would be common sense.  I guess not.

@Bryan O. Yes, it is stated in my lease.  And it also states that any remaining balances from unpaid service fees would be deducted from the security deposit.

@Sam Shueh Yes, you are correct, but this is the boiler, not the hot water heater. My boiler is set for 180 deg.

To everyone still following, the plot thickens. The cost to have someone come out to unfreeze the pipes was $400. My tenants told me that because I was charging them for that, they are paying $100 less per month for the remaining 4 months of their lease AND they want their full deposit back at the end. What is my legal course of action from this point?

If they short their rent $100, I would send them a 5 day notice to pay or quit. After the 5 days start eviction so it is on their record. Don't accept any further partial payments. As far as the security deposits, it is there for damages to the property beyond normal wear and tear. Remember, it is YOUR rental which makes you, NOT them in charge!

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