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VOLUME VIDetermining Inspections and ViolationsBy Melanie Green Landlords are busy. With so many tasks involved in managing rental properties, property inspections may be overlooked. The problem with that is a small violation can then escalate to a bigger issue.
Whether the rental property is a multi-unit or a single-family home, conducting inspections and identifying potential violations is an important part of maintaining this investment.
Here are some important considerations to know about property inspections:
Property inspection types vary.
There are certain criteria to look for when conducting an inspection.
Recognize what makes a home inhabitable.
Confirm what property owners can do to protect their investment.
Learn all options for dealing with violations.
Understanding the different types of property inspections, violations and the importance of regular inspections can help landlords make the most of their financial investments.
Different Types of InspectionsThere are two types of inspections and violations that landlords and property managers must keep in mind. First, there are inspections related to the lease terms. This occurs before a tenant moves in and when a tenant moves out to ensure that tenants do not damage the property. If they do, an inspection can help to assess the damages and hold them responsible for repairs.
Periodic inspections, as outlined in the lease terms, can help to identify when renters violate specific lease terms. For instance, landlords can verify whether a tenant snuck a pet into a unit where pets aren’t allowed. Or, find out if they have more people living in the unit than originally confirmed.
Another type of inspection involves a third-party inspector that looks at the property from a safety and quality standpoint. These inspectors look for structural concerns that could render a home uninhabitable.
“I highly recommend a third party,” said Jonathan Coleman, founder of Go4Rent. “We use OnSite PROS because they provide an inspection similar to a pre-purchase inspection. For an annual lease, the inspection should be after the halfway point but just prior to the renewal period. It helps landlords decide if they should renew.”
Additionally, inspectors look at whether properties meet certain municipal and building codes. Properties that violate these codes often require immediate remediation to bring them back up to standard. For the most serious concerns, such as collapsing building structures or severe cases of black mold, the building could be rendered uninhabitable until owners address the repairs.
What To Look For During Rental Property InspectionsLandlords and tenants should have a thorough understanding of the lease terms. Are property owners or renters responsible for general maintenance, such as replacing light bulbs and air filters? Are tenants allowed to have pets? The lease agreement is the most significant paper trail for both parties to confirm what counts as a violation.Safety and sanitation concerns
Anything that presents a safety concern during a routine inspection should be addressed once it’s found. This could include problems with the actual building or with the living conditions of the tenants.
Obvious issues to spot are messiness. For example, repeated sinks full of dishes and rotting food invites pests and vermin into the rental, in addition to the potential for mold growth.
Or, if tenants have so much clutter that windows and doors become inaccessible, this is a major safety concern and a fire hazard. First responders would not be able to reach residents in case of an emergency.
According to Lilio Alvarez, the owner and operator of Florida’s HouseMaster Home Inspections (for Hillsborough, Pinellas, Polk, Pasco and Manatee counties), the most important thing home inspectors look for is related to safety.
“You have to know what to look for, even in new construction,” said Alvarez. “You can’t assume that new work won’t have safety issues. It can be as simple as having the wrong vent cover installed. This could lead to a fire.”
Whether pets are allowed varies from lease to lease. If a tenant hasn’t paid a pet fee or lives where pets aren’t allowed, seeing evidence of pets living in the rental is problematic. Signs include seeing fur, smelling pet-related odors (i.e. urine or feces), and hearing barking or meowing. A mat with water and food bowls or a litter box is a dead giveaway as well.
Additionally, some cities limit how many pets are allowed within a unit. Some breeds or species of animals might also have restrictions, even if landlords generally allow pets. Floridians are banned from owning quite a few wildlife animals, including racoons, skunks, tigers and venomous reptiles. Texans cannot own more than six animals total, and cannot own indigenous birds, invasive fish or diamondback terrapins.
Wear and tear
Over the course of living in a rental property, some things will have wear and tear. Smudge might appear on walls. Locks might become sticky. Light bulbs need to be replaced. Carpets become slightly discolored. An inspection is the perfect time to resolve any of these easily addressable findings. When the unit is vacant after moveout inspections, it is easier to deep clean carpets, re-paint walls and replace locks.
Excessive wear and tear could be considered lease violations. Having large holes in the wall, peculiarly large carpet stains or signs of water damage need to be addressed with the tenants. Maintaining a clean and orderly living space falls under the responsibility of the renter.
There are no specific laws in Florida or Texas about who is responsible for changing HVAC filters, so the lease terms dictate who should replace them. Neither state requires air conditioners to be included in rentals though. For rentals where landlords or property managers agree to replace filters, routine inspections are a good time to do so. If the tenant is responsible for changing filters, landlords can verify that there is a clean filter in HVAC units during the inspection. A seriously dirty filter, often recognizable by a burning smell when it’s turned on, is an indicator that the HVAC filter is not being regularly changed and could be at risk of mold or mildew.
General MaintenanceInspections provide a great opportunity to identify new maintenance concerns since the walk-through. If light switches are blown, it makes sense to have the light switch fixed immediately instead of waiting until the tenant moves out. These repairs are important for maintaining the value of the property and providing the best service to tenants. If maintenance tasks and repairs are made in a timely manner, tenants might be more likely to renew their leases instead of taking a chance with new property management elsewhere that might be less attentive.
“The biggest downfall we commonly see from a cost and safety perspective is the lack of regular maintenance with ownership,” Alvarez said. “You have to take a car to have its oil changed. Houses have things that need to be maintained, too. If you don’t stay on top of it, you can have issues that you don’t catch in time.”
Some maintenance tasks are small and inexpensive. However, if left unattended, costs can quickly escalate. For example, properly cleaning out a dryer vent is much cheaper than dealing with the aftermath of a dryer fire. Repairing a small roof leak quickly is much more cost-effective than having extensive water damage and mold.What Makes a Home Uninhabitable?There are specific building codes and standards that Code Enforcement and the Local Housing Authority enforce. The exact guidelines will vary slightly by municipality and state. However, all uninhabitable homes present safety or health issues to the occupants. Some examples of what would make a home uninhabitable from a home inspection or code enforcement standpoint include:
Electric code violations
If outdated electrical panels or electrical wiring are left unrepaired, it could cause a fire. In some instances, dangerous electrical systems could cause a house to be declared uninhabitable.
Windows can’t open and stay up on their own
It is important that windows operate correctly at all times. In case of a fire or other emergency, people will need to be able to evacuate. While this doesn’t automatically make a home uninhabitable, it may be a code violation.
Roof is too old
Having an aging roof will make it difficult to secure a loan to buy a property. It can also cause a home to be declared uninhabitable. If a roof leaks or looks like it might cave in, this will complicate insurance claims and could largely leave the landlord responsible for avoidable property damage.
Structures falling down
Structural damage or falling structures can happen naturally over time. In other cases, extreme weather conditions, such as earthquakes and hurricanes, can render a home suddenly inhabitable.
Initial termite damage won’t cause a home to be considered uninhabitable. Once landlords know about the termites, it is important to treat the termites before they begin to cause more significant structural damage though.
If a rental has an excessive amount of items from tenants, there is no way that first responders can enter the home in the event that emergency services are needed. Homes need a certain amount of clearance of physical items around the doors and windows. Those that don’t meet these standards are in violation.
Extreme lack of cleanliness and hygiene
Are there piles of garbage? Is there a noticeable odor, especially outside of the property? Having tenants with extremely poor cleanliness and hygiene can be considered a serious violation, especially if it could be considered a public nuisance.
Pests and vermin
If bugs or rodents are overtaking a home, it still isn’t considered inhabitable. However, pests carry diseases and create unsanitary conditions for tenants living in the home. A lack of proper insulation or sealed windows allows pests to enter the home. Similarly, dirty homes with easy access to garbage or food invites pests into the home.
No running water
Rental properties in the U.S. are expected to have basic access to things like running water. If a property no longer has access to running water, this is a problem and the property should not be rented out. Water is required for hygiene and basic survival.
Significant mold growth that impacts drywall and insulation could create risks to human health and safety. There are different types of mold, and some molds are more dangerous to human health than others. Black mold is sometimes associated with uninhabitable properties.
What Property Owners Can Do To Protect ThemselvesHiring a third-party home inspector can help to protect landlord interests while helping tenants live in the best possible version of a property. Responsible landlords want the most rentable and profitable properties in their investment portfolios, not to be depicted as slum landlords.
Keeping up with all repairs and maintenance tasks can go a long way toward ensuring that no small problem escalates and becomes a bigger issue. Should landlords not take care of these issues, tenants can try to break their leases after paying for repairs and potentially deduct those costs from their rent payments. Or, they can attempt to sue the landlord.
Sometimes, tenants damage a property to the point that it’s uninhabitable. In these cases, landlords can take legal action against tenants to attempt to recoup the costs of repairing the property. Since renters may lack the assets required to make such repairs, this may not be the most effective option.
In the event that a rental is declared uninhabitable, repairs must be made within an established amount of time to bring it up to code. If this doesn’t happen or if the problem is very severe, tenants will be required to move out, and landlords must make all necessary repairs before it can be rented again.
What To Do About ViolationsThe nature of the violations should dictate next steps. If landlords or property managers find a violation during a periodic inspection, it should be remediated by the party in violation. If tenants have an unapproved pet, they should pay the pet fee or rehome the pet. If the inspection reveals needed repairs, those should be scheduled.
In the event of a code violation by a housing authority, the government entity decides what happens next. In most cases, there are opportunities for landlords and tenants to remediate the situation and continue living in the property.
While there is always a risk that tenants violate the terms of their lease or make their own living conditions worse, having a known process of routine inspections can be enough of a reminder for them to be more aware of their surroundings.