Frozen Pipes Burst - Who's Responsible?

19 Replies

The other day I received a text form my tenant "I'm just returning from vacation, and it appears the water inside the house was frozen from the tips of the faucet, and I believe the pipes froze and possibly busted".  

Well, I had a plumber go out to fix the issue, which was 9 busted pipes, and luckily he got to it before the water in the crawl space reached the furnace.  The plumber informed me that there is a vent in the crawl space so if the furnace was on this should have never happened.  The tenant told me he turned the furnace down when he left for vacation, but that it was on.  I paid for the repair which was $1800, but does anyone have any experience with this?  I told the tenant afterwards what the plumber told me, and that the thermostat needs to stay above 65 degrees if they ever leave the house again.  

Does anyone have any similar experiences and is this something I should put in my lease to cover this in the future?  I feel like it's almost an impossible situation to win.  It's basically my word vs. the tenant's.

Ive had pipe bursts from tenants turning down the heat. I took it out of their security deposit.

Russell Brazil, Real Estate Agent in Maryland (#648402), Virginia (#0225219736), District of Columbia (#SP98375353), and Massachusetts (#9​0​5​2​3​4​6)
(301) 893-4635

Most leases have a clause for proper maintenance of the property. Turning down the heat in the winter is not properly maintaining the property.  Also most leases state that the tenant has to inform you when they are going on vacation, and this is for the the very reason of knowing when something bad might happen to the property like freezing pipes or fire.

So while freezing pipes is not specifically in my lease, proper maintenance of the property covers this.  I simply did not return their security deposit when they moved out, and gave them a list of repairs and the costs on their move out form.

Russell Brazil, Real Estate Agent in Maryland (#648402), Virginia (#0225219736), District of Columbia (#SP98375353), and Massachusetts (#9​0​5​2​3​4​6)
(301) 893-4635

Ouch. I think if you don't have some clause in the lease and you never discussed anything about leaving the furnace on (not that verbal would help in court much) you might be eating this one. If they are good tenants and you want to keep them then lesson learned and hopefully you can trust them more in the future. If you want them out I'm sure you could take to eviction but it may be hard to hold up in court if they are still paying. You could also just not renew their lease when its up next.

I suggest you come back with a payment plan. It sounds like you handled the fixing pretty quickly and they had enough thought to at least call you (trust me, some people don't report issues and it amazes me). Explain to them that this was their issue and if this was a personal residence that they would be eating the cost at once. Instead, have them pay an extra $150/month until its paid off

What did your insurance say about this?

$1800, for that price I sure hope he Pex'd it all. Pex can generally survive down to 55 deg F although I've had it survive hard freezes below that.

@Steven J. I don't have anything in my lease right now that addresses this, although I definitely will be adding it.  They are good tenants, and actually paid 12 months rent up front and they do plan on staying long term.  I haven't had any issues with them thus far.
@Josh C. I didn't file a claim with insurance.  I didn't think they would cover something like this, and if they did it wouldn't be worth paying the deductible and having my rates go up.
@Pat L. I am not sure if he did that.  Is that a certain type of piping?  He did tell me that he did it in a certain way where if it happened again, it would be a lot easier to replace the piping.

Seems like with something so important/specific as needing to keep the heat above a certain temperature to avoid the pipes from bursting that there would be a specific clause in the lease that addressed it and spelled out the minimum temperature that needed to be maintained.  Otherwise, how would the tenant know that 65 degrees is okay but 60 is not?  Different houses would have different temperature requirements (I keep my own house at 62 degrees in the winter when I'm not home).  Unless your lease specified a specific temperature that it needed to be kept above - and the tenant failed to maintain that temperature - then I personally wouldn't charge this to the tenant. 

@Pat L.  am I misunderstanding your comment? 55 degrees F is quite a bit above the freezing point of water.

My one burst pipe was a PEX push-fit connection which was entombed inside a void between a layer of new flooring and and an older floor.  Was not fun.  Took me hours to get to it.

@Dan Shelhamer Here is the part of my lease that addresses your concern:

______ 5. UTILITIES: Water and sewer service and curbside trash removal are provided to you. You must obtain and pay for all other utilities. We are not liable for interruption or malfunction in service. You may not occupy your apartment without electric service except during brief interruptions beyond your control. Electric and natural gas service may not be discontinued while you are in possession of your unit. A minimum temperature of 55 oF must be maintained inside your rental unit at all times; damage to the property resulting from you not doing so is your sole responsibility.


This $1800 payment might be "tuition" for the next time, when you'll have yourself covered in your own lease.  Good luck!

@Wesley W.

yes the push type connections are metal based & will fail during a hard freeze. I only use crimped connections & none have failed during the hard freezes we have at the Lakehouse whereas a 3/4 copper pipe supposedly drained split as did the push type connection at that junction. I currently have a 3/4 per pipe freezing that we can't reach until spring. But it has not split so we just added a heat trace to alleviate the ongoing problem.

The 55 deg F was for ambient temp. He was insisting on them holding it at 65 deg F which seems high as we only have our home at 64 deg F during the winter. Maybe for the $1800 the repairs should have included heat tracing.

@Pat L. Thanks for the clarification.  Are these hard freezes you are talking about in an unheated house?  I assume so because you mentioned a lakehouse.

I use crimp connections for all my PEX work (except when I have to tie into existing copper), and have not had one fail yet.  (I'm worried about NYE, however.  Forecast is for -11 F, and the last time I had the pipes freeze and cause the break was at -13 F.)

Yes our Lakehouse is on stilts so all the plumbing runs are under the home exposed to extreme hard freezes. But I now run food grade anti freeze through the lines as I added 2.5 baths & a 23x12 kitchen all with extensive Pex plumbing. Draining the lines & blowing them out was tedious & with some of the indoor laterals & high end Kohler brass shower diverters I was skeptical that any residual water would not cause problems.

The ongoing Pex issue I now have is at a 6plex. The Pex pipe runs above an outside patio roof that was not repaired correctly nor insulated. So the heat trace is a bandaid. For your situation unless you can heat trace it I would let the water trickle/run constantly through the pipes at those temps. Water is cheaper than frozen/bust pipes.

Never happened to me in Miami, but we do get our share of seasonal high winds.

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

Brie Schmidt, Real Estate Agent in Wisconsin (#57846-90) and Illinois (#471.018287)
Originally posted by @Dan Shelhamer :

The other day I received a text form my tenant "I'm just returning from vacation, and it appears the water inside the house was frozen from the tips of the faucet, and I believe the pipes froze and possibly busted".  

Well, I had a plumber go out to fix the issue, which was 9 busted pipes, and luckily he got to it before the water in the crawl space reached the furnace.  The plumber informed me that there is a vent in the crawl space so if the furnace was on this should have never happened.  The tenant told me he turned the furnace down when he left for vacation, but that it was on.  I paid for the repair which was $1800, but does anyone have any experience with this?  I told the tenant afterwards what the plumber told me, and that the thermostat needs to stay above 65 degrees if they ever leave the house again.  

Does anyone have any similar experiences and is this something I should put in my lease to cover this in the future?  I feel like it's almost an impossible situation to win.  It's basically my word vs. the tenant's.

 It would be a good idea to put it on your lease but you have to understand that in this business us landlords are ultimately responsible for everything. Can you try to get the tenant to pay? Yes of course. On paper if you had it in your lease they should be the ones paying but it doesn't always play out like that in real life. As landlords we need to throw away the idea of right & wrong. Instead it must be replaced with what's practical & how to be move forward while mitigating as many losses as possible.

You try to get them to pay & they refuse. Either because they can't afford to pay or they don't think that they should be held responsible. What do you do then? Your recourse would be to sue or evict. Lawsuits are expensive & it's very hard to collect from a person with no tangible assets. Evicting because they cost you $1,800 is just going to cost you another $3,000-$5,000.

This kind of stuff is part of the game. Remember if the game was easy EVERYONE would be playing it. Tenants do dumb stuff, you gotta get used to that. If they didn't do dumb stuff they'd wouldn't be your tenant. They would be your competition! If they pay all or some of it i'd consider that a bonus, but I wouldn't be throwing good money after bad here.

James Wise, Real Estate Agent in OH (#2015001161)
216-661-6633

Your pre-populated lease should have a clause in it about proper maintenance that would allow you to collect from them or at the very least split the cost.

It may be a good idea to write in a clause about conditions during extreme weather like a minimum heat temp that must be maintained, or requiring winterization when gone from the home.

It would be nice if the lease covered EVERYTHING.  However, I have a whole addendum of line items that I add to my lease as a result of experience from many different tenants.  If your lease doesn't cover this issue, then you may have just had your first $1,800 lesson and/or lease term addition suggestion.

@Kyle J. I agree that it needs to be spelled out in the lease, which unfortunately I don't have, but will be adding this into my lease moving forward.  I think 62 is an accurate number to keep a house at if you are going to be leaving for a few days.

@Wesley W. thanks so much for sending this over. I will definitely be adding this to my lease. Always gotta find the silver lining in everything. I paid $1,800 for a mistake that I won't make again, and based on what I budget for CapEx/Repairs, I am still right on budget for 2017.

@Nick Danaluk I guess every area has something related to weather which can cause some serious issues.  I will be relocating to the Phoenix area so won't have to deal with freezing pipes anymore, but I'm sure AC units won't be lasting as long out there.

@Brie Schmidt thank you for the suggestion!  I am going to start messaging them all as well.

@James Wise   All valid points!  Sometimes its not worth making a big deal out of it unless you do want them out.  Luckily this is a property with 25%+ cash flow so I am able to pay for it with what I budgeted for repairs, and also believe these tenants will be with me long term.  They also paid for 12 months up front which helps.

@Cara Lonsdale unfortunately my lease doesn't have anything in it to cover this, but I will be revising and updating my lease.

@Dawn Anastasi thank you for the input!

Every winter we send a letter detailing our expectation for things tenants should do to take care of the pipes, etc. during the winter months. We remind them of their responsibility should a preventable issue arise, which is stated in the lease. 

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