Ep. 132: Snow Removal For Landlords

Record snowfalls in some parts of the country have made snow removal from rental properties a hot topic between landlords and tenants. In this episode of Night School, we’ll take a look at snow removal responsibilities and share some insight into this hot topic during cold weather.

Landlords or Tenants: Who’s Responsible for Removing Snow?

Transcription of Episode 132: Snow Removal For Landlords

Jeff: In most cases, in most states, landlords are responsible for snow removal at the driveway. The landlords can make it the tenant’s responsibility to take care of their own path to their vehicle, shovel around their vehicle. Obviously, you can’t plow very good around a vehicle and if you live in an area that gets plowed often, you don’t want plows near your vehicle anyway.

Man: Nothing will crush a real estate investor’s spirit like landlord stress. The difference between being successful and miserable in managing properties is education. Welcome to Landlord University, where landlords learn. Landlord University is recorded from inside the RentPrep office, where Stephen White and Jeff Pearson share the lessons learned from working with some of the most successful landlords.

Jeff: Welcome to Landlord University Night School. I’m Jeff Pearson. I’m here with my co-host, Stephen White. Hello, Stephen. How are you doing this evening?

Stephen: Hey, pretty good, Jeff. So I selected the topic today based on…

Jeff: Based on the fact that I have no idea what you’re talking about.

Stephen: Yeah, pretty much. That in the northeast, we’ve been getting slammed with snow. You guys are dealing with drought, so you got a whole different problem over in the west. But in the northeast, we’ve been just getting blasted with snow. And so it makes sense that one of the blog articles that we posted in the fall to prepare landlords for the upcoming snow season, has now become by far the most popular blog article on our website. And the blog article is, “Landlords or Tenants: Who is responsible for removing snow?” And I would say we’re averaging probably at least minimum one a day.

And again, this is an older article so it’s unusual to continue to keep getting comments. But we get a ton of comments on it. And it’s usually, you know, kind of a mix between landlords sharing a story or asking a question. But we get a lot of renters too that want to know who is responsible. They slip, they fell, dealing a lot with removing snow off of roofs, things like that. So I thought it would be interesting to talk about, share some of the answers that I found digging around and researching, trying to find answers for people. Obviously, a lot of this is based state per state, but there definitely is, you know, an underlying message that goes along with it. And some just basic principles to understand, too.

Jeff: Okay. Well, being from California and not in the Sierra Nevadas where they get snow, this is completely new to me. It’s information that I know very little about. I see on Facebook when friends are talking about shoveling their sidewalks, and that seems somewhat foreign to me. So go ahead and tell us a little bit about where do the responsibilities lie and what can landlords do that might make them more responsible?

Stephen: In most cases, in most states, landlords are responsible for snow removal basically at the driveway. So basically, to allow the person in and out, the landlords can make it the tenant’s responsibility to basically take care of their own path to get to their vehicle, shovel around their vehicle. Obviously, you can’t plow very good around the vehicle. And if you live in an area that gets plowed off and you usually don’t want plows near your vehicle anyway. They have a tendency to not know where your bumper is buried in the snow. I’ve gone through two mailboxes in the past two years, so they also seemed to miss mailboxes too.

So there’s a lot of damage that snow plows can cause. So, you know, from a renter’s perspective, you really don’t want plows trying to navigate around your vehicle anyway. So it’s a good idea, except that it’s your responsibility to shovel your own vehicle out. And if you live in an area that deals with snow, trust me, you’re used to shoveling. But a lot of the questions that we’ve been getting have been dealing a lot with ice, which is a whole different. It seems very related but it’s very different from the idea of snow removal. And so a lot of the issues are like slip and falls, people fell in the sidewalk, the landlord is not putting salt down.

The one comment that led me down a long trail of research was property management company that flat out told the tenants, “We’re not going to salt. We will supply you with salt that you can come pick up in the management office. But we will not put it down.” And I thought that was kind of strange. And so after I started digging in and looking into it, it made a lot of sense to me. And the basic reason for that is because, again, most states only speak to snow removal and not ice. So when you start throwing salt down in the eyes of the court, so this has been proved in many court cases. That once you throw salt down, if you’re the landlord or you’re the property manager, that becomes your responsibility, that becomes your duty to be diligent with it, make sure it’s down.

And so if you miss a day, if it’s an overnight freeze and you haven’t gotten to it yet or whatever, and that person does slip and fall. And they found that it was because, you know, the sidewalk wasn’t salted or whatever, that landlord or property management company is not liable for it because that was their duty, that was their responsibility. So a lot of them take the position of saying, “We’re not going to do it. You do it. We supply you with the stuff but we’re not going to be the ones to actually throw it down.” Because they don’t want to open themselves up to, you know, litigation, lawsuits, and you know, down the road.

Jeff: Yeah, that’s crazy because like you said, if there’s an overnight freeze, then in the morning if they haven’t put the salt down and somebody is going to work at 5:00 in the morning, you create this automatic responsibility just because you’ve done it in the past. I guess you could put signs up with date and time, “last salted at this time”.

Stephen: Well, the difficult, I mean if you live in an area that gets snow. Snow knows no time. I mean they could snow middle of the day, middle of the night. I always feel bad for snow plow drivers in this area because, you know, they’re usually doing, you know, it’s not unusual to see a snow plow driver out, you know, 15, 20 hours because they’re just trying to keep up with it. And you know, it’s a tough snow. So then when you add ice on top of it, I would say it’s probably next to impossible to ensure that you’re gonna have consistent salting at all times that there can possibly be ice. I don’t think it’s realistic.

Jeff: I can believe that.

Stephen: So I think that, you know, that makes sense especially for a large property management company community, where there’s a lot of walkways, you know, to leave it up to the tenants and say, you know, “Hey, you know, we’re gonna give you the supplies. All you’ve got to do is, you know, walk out in the morning on your way to work or whatever, grab the salt, sprinkle it in front of you so that you’re giving yourself, you know, a walkway there and we’re gonna touch it basically.”

Jeff: So I know on the blog article that you’ve had on the website, there’s been a lot of back and forth, you know, with some landlords as well as some tenants who have had different thoughts and ideas about this. Share a little bit about that.

Stephen: Yeah, so one of the other issues there that has come up quite often, Massachusetts specifically has been dealing with just massive amounts of snow. And anyone who has shoveled before knows that snow can be very heavy. You know, obviously it’s water, water is heavy. So you got, you know, this super dense, heavy snow that if it starts to accumulate and in Massachusetts they were dealing with over three feet, starts to really weigh on the homes and it can collapse roofs, it can collapse porches. And so one of the comments that really stuck out to me was a landlord who told the tenant that they were responsible to climb on the roof and shovel the snow off the roof. And I thought that that was just the craziest thing I’ve ever heard.

Jeff: Yeah, that doesn’t sound good at all.

Stephen: No, no. And the renter was, you know, obviously outraged and so, you know, 50 something years old. I’m not climbing on the roof, its danger, you know, which is really understandable. You know, I wouldn’t wanna climb my roof and shovel it off. They make roof rakes they’re called, you know, kind of these extendable big shovel type looking things that you can use to pull snow off of the roof. So I could see giving a tenant access to that. But even that, I mean you risk pulling it down and having ice fall on you, and I think you know as a landlord, it is asking for trouble to tell a tenant, “Hey, climb on the roof when it’s snowy and slippery, and shovel it for me.”

Jeff: I agree.

Stephen: Yeah. So that obviously, you know, my responsibility, that is obviously the landlord’s responsibility. That actually because that doesn’t fall under traditional snow removal, that’s considered maintenance. And so that is the responsibility of the landlord.

Jeff: That makes sense.

Stephen: Yeah. So, you know, in those cases, that’s pretty cut and dry, it’s obvious. Now, you may live, especially if you’re in the northeast, you may live in a specific area, you know, where the municipal or the municipalities has ordinances. That, you know, in my municipality for example, Erie County, I operate in Buffalo, New York, we’re responsible for clearing out sidewalks. If you don’t clear out your sidewalk in front of a home, you can be fined. And so, you know, each municipality kinda has their own rules towards it. So if you’re a landlord, if you’re in an area that gets snow, obviously a good idea to check with your local laws, check with your local municipality, not just on the state level.

I’m talking county, city, double-check what the requirements are for the landlord or the owner of the property to make sure that you’re not, you know, operating outside of those legal limits or you’re not doing anything outside of it. But, you know, like I was telling you earlier, Jeff, right before we jumped on the recording, in almost all of these cases, it really does come down to communication, and usually a lack thereof. Tenants don’t understand what their responsibilities are, landlords don’t really understand what their responsibilities are. And so a lot of the back and forth that I’m getting on the comments in the blog are basically, you know, I wanna sue my landlord or I wanna kick this tenant out.

But it seems in every one of these cases, there is no line of communication. There is no, “Hey, we just, you know…” A landlord might call or management company might call a tenant, “Hey, you know, we’ve been getting hit with snow. How you guys doing over there?” You know, and especially like Massachusetts is a good example. They were under a state of emergency for a while and these are extreme conditions. So you’re not dealing with very typical thing. So it’s never a bad idea to reach out but it’s always a good idea to make very clear what you expect the tenant to do, and what your responsibilities when dealing with snow removal are, at least signing. I mean that’s the best place to address those issues, you know.

You sign the lease in the summer, it’s still a good idea. Hey, when we come into snow season, here’s what my policies are for snow removal. Or here’s what I expect of you. Or here’s what you can expect of me. You know, in some cases, again going back to Massachusetts, tenants were getting upset because, you know, they couldn’t get out of their driveway in the morning to get to work. Because the plow hadn’t showed up yet. Well, again, you know if you’re in a state of emergency, you have to be reasonable, too. You know, these snow plow drivers, they’re probably, you know like I said, they’re out working 15, 20 hours a day. They’re doing more than they would normally do when you have an abundance of snow.

So that just may be a situation where the landlord may have all the right contracts in place, and it’s just, you know, a circumstance where they may not be able to get to you right away or at the time that you’re usually used to. And in those cases, you know, the tenants have to have a little understanding, just as anybody does in these situations that, you know, you get inundated with snow. You got to be prepared for some inconvenience too. But, you know, for a lot of it like I said, it really does come to … being that causes a lot of friction. And it’s a lot of, you know, the landlord didn’t do this and I’m upset and this and that. And of course my usual first response is, you know, when you discussed this with the landlord, what did they say?

And they’re, “Nah, I haven’t discussed it yet.” Well, that should be your first response, not to look up what legally they’re… you know, how you could sue them. But just open the line of communication, “Hey, you know, my roof is about to collapse or the porch is sagging. Or, you know, it’s really difficult to get out of my driveway,” or anything like that. Just have that line of communication. Don’t be afraid to reach out and I think that will snuff a lot of these issues that are coming up. Because most of it, like I said, it’s revolving around this lack of communication that’s going on.

Jeff: Yes. So as you said, you know, first and foremost, when you sign the lease, you wanna be sure that you lay out what your responsibilities are and what their responsibilities are. But in addition to that, maybe at the first major snow fall of the season each year, reach out to your tenants. And say, “Hey, I just wanted to touch base with you. I wanted to clarify what we discussed when we signed the lease, what my policies are. But certainly, if there’s anything I can help you with, let me know. And I want to work with you on this, but at the same time, these are what my basic policies are. And if anything comes up, don’t hesitate to reach out to me. Let’s talk about it.” That’s opening up that line of communication.

And then if there was a major situation, such as what we had in Boston, then that’s another time to reach out. And say, “Hey, how are you doing? How’s the property doing? What can I do to help you?” And, within reason, do what you can to help them. Because again, you’re trying to help make sure that your tenants first and foremost are safe and then that they’re happy, that they enjoy living at your property so that they’ll continue living there, treating it well, and paying the rent.

Stephen: Yeah. And another issue that I thought was important to mention, too. If you have an elderly person, I don’t know the stats or statistics, but 90% of the deaths that we hear about that are weather-related in Buffalo, because of snow fall are usually people who drop dead from shoveling because they have a heart attack. So not only elderly, I’m thinking disabled as well. You know, as a landlord, you have the responsibility to provide reasonable accommodations. So, you know, if you have somebody that doesn’t have the ability to get out there and shovel or remove the snow, think about that ahead of time.

And, you know, address it, so that when the time comes that person is not stranded or, you know, the home health care can’t get in there. That’s another huge issue that we deal with in the snow belt a lot. You not only can you sometimes you can’t get out but people can’t get in. And if you’re somebody that receives home health care, you know, you’re in trouble. They even allow in my area, they even allow during snow storms, they legally allow snowmobiles to go up and down streets to, you know, to get nurses out to send medication to people. So, you know, be thoughtful as a landlord. Think ahead, know who your tenants are, know what their responsibilities are going to be. And if they’ll be able to fulfill those responsibilities, too.

Jeff: That’s right. And if any of our listeners have some thoughts about this, it would be fun to have them jump into the discussions on the blog, at rentprep.com. And yeah, let us know your thoughts either through email, to landlordu@rentprep.com or on the blog. Join in that conversation because it is a very interesting conversation.

Stephen: Yeah. And the last thing I’ll mention, insurance, insurance, insurance. We just talked about it on in the news. It’s something that we talk about pretty often on the blog as well, renter’s insurance. Renter’s insurance does cover personal injury, most of it does. Which you should always have in your sleeve when you’re carrying a landlord insurance policy, you know, that can ease some of the pressure that your own insurance policy may have, if the person does slip and fall. So make sure that your insurance is in good order. Yeah, obviously you wanna have a landlord policy. Don’t rely on homeowners, even if your own were occupied.

If you’re renting to somebody, get a landlord policy. And never a bad idea to require that they have a policy for, you know, as a renter. Because, again, they’re gonna be covered for some things also through their own policy. And so you may not have to use yours.

Jeff: Yes, very good point. Well, great, Stephen. Thank you very much. I’ll look forward to talking with you again tomorrow evening.

Stephen: Great. Thanks, Jeff.

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