As October is Fire Prevention Month, we wanted to share preventative measures real estate investors and their tenants can take to fend off one of the most destructive and deadly losses we see – fires.
The first step in fire prevention is understanding what could happen, so let’s start with some statistics. The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) estimates that there may be as many as 7.4 million house fires each year, and the majority are able to be put out without having to call the fire department. According to the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), on average, fire departments respond to 358,500 home structure fires each year.
- One out of every 326 households report a fire each year.
- Seven people die in home fires every day.
- Each year, house fires result in an average of 2,510 civilian deaths; 12,300 injuries; and $6.7 billion in direct damage.
Points of Origin
As your investor clients perform their regularly scheduled maintenance and property inspections, they should keep an eye out for safety issues and address as needed.
Areas where a fire is likely to start:
- Kitchen or cooking area – 43%
- Bedroom – 7%
- Confined chimney or flue – 5%
- Living room, family room, or den – 4%
Leading causes of fires in homes:
- Cooking Equipment – 47%
- Heating Equipment – 15%
- Electrical – 9%
- Intentional – 8%
- Smoking Materials – 5%
Leading Cause #1: Cooking Equipment
According to the National Fire Protection Association, in 2020, ranges or cooktops were involved in 62% of home fires caused by cooking equipment, and unattended equipment was the leading cause of cooking fires and casualties. Providing an operable and safe stove and oven is a basic amenity for most rentals, which leaves investors wondering, “What more can I do to mitigate cooking fires?” Your investor clients can’t monitor the kitchen 100% of the time, and a cooking test is probably not part of their tenant screening process. However, they can educate tenants on the dangers of cooking fires and the importance of staying in the kitchen while cooking. Your investor clients could also invest in a product like StoveTop FireStop (STFS). This product is designed to put out unattended cooktop fires. It’s like installing a fire suppression system, only much less expensive and more targeted.
Leading Cause #2: Home Heating Equipment
This equipment includes central heating systems, portable and stationary space heaters, fireplaces, chimneys, heat transfer systems, and water heaters. Regular inspection and servicing of the furnace and water heaters help minimize the risk of malfunction and fires. Educating tenants on the use of space heaters is also critical. Investors will want to share the following tips with their tenants:
- Space heaters should not be the primary heating source in the house.
- Any space heater in use should be equipped with safety features, such as automatic shut-off if knocked over.
- Keep a 3-foot safety zone around the heater cleared of any flammables (blankets, toys, pet toys, and any other clutter that might catch fire).
- DO NOT extend the range of the heater by using an extension cord. The extension cord may overheat, becoming a fire hazard.
- Space heaters should not be left unattended or run overnight.
Chimneys and fireplaces should be inspected and cleaned by a professional annually. The inspection will reveal the health of the chimney and allow any fixes to be made before a chimney fire can occur.
Bonus Tip: Cleaning out dryer vents is a relatively easy task and can prevent a costly fire. Your investor clients should instruct tenants to clean out the lint trap regularly too!
Leading Cause #3: Electrical
Electrical systems include fixed wiring, meters or meter boxes, switches, receptacles or outlets, transformers, breakers, cords, plugs, lighting equipment, etc. When an investor first buys a property, they should make sure all components of the electrical system are up to code and in good condition. As you know, many insurers won’t cover some types of older wiring (e.g., aluminum or knob and tube), so not only is it unsafe, but if the investor client suffers a loss, they most likely won’t be compensated for that loss either.
During the initial walk-through with tenants, investors should point out the following fire hazards:
- Using too many extension cords and/or multiple multi-outlet strips can cause an overload.
- Covering electrical cords with carpet or other materials can cause them to overheat.
- Using appliances with cords (including extension cords) that are worn or frayed can cause the current to dangerously arc.
- Placing light bulbs too close to flammable items can cause heat to transfer.
Leading Cause #4: Intentionally Set Fires
Intentionally set fires start with deliberate misuse of a heat source. We have heard of occurrences where a tenant set fire to the house because they found out they were being evicted. We have also seen instances where squatters trying to stay warm in a vacant home started a fire, causing the house to go up in flames. Unfortunately, firefighters and other innocents have been injured or killed in some of these incidents, leading to arson and secondary homicide charges.
During regularly scheduled inspections, the investor client should limit flammable items, as it may help decrease the possibility of someone starting a fire at the property. Picking up litter, getting rid of firewood, and removing old propane tanks, gas cans, and paint stored around the house can dramatically reduce the risk of fire.
Leading Cause #5: Smoking Materials
Your investor clients may have a provision in their leases that prohibits tenants from smoking inside or on the premises. The reasoning may be to avoid smoke damage or running off future non-smoker tenants, but it can also keep tenants and the investment safer. We have seen incidents where someone fell asleep on the living room couch with a cigarette in hand and started a house fire. In some of those instances, we have also seen injuries and fatalities.
The garage is another common smoking spot. However, flammables such as gasoline, paint thinner, and other aerosols are often stored in the garage, creating another dangerous scenario. During routine inspections, investors should keep an eye out for discarded cigarette butts on the property. If a tenant throws one into a plant bed, it may ignite a fire that spreads to the house. If the unit is non-smoking, it should be clearly stated in the lease and seriously enforced. People’s lives may depend on it.
Test smoke alarms regularly
Most, if not all, jurisdictions require working smoke detectors in rental homes. 57% of home fire deaths result from fires where either no smoke alarm was present, or an alarm was present but didn’t operate. It’s essential to provide working smoke alarms and test them regularly. Batteries don’t last forever, and neither do smoke alarms. Both need to be changed regularly. The life expectancy of a smoke alarm is about ten years, and a carbon monoxide alarm is about five years. Investors should replace any alarms that are over those ages and change smoke alarm batteries at least twice a year.
During regularly scheduled inspections, each alarm should be tested. We’ve seen incidents where:
- Tenants decided they didn’t want to be bothered with a chirp when the batteries were getting weak
- Tenants liked to smoke in the house but didn’t like the alarm going off
- A tenant burnt a meal in the kitchen, disconnected the batteries in their smoke detectors, and forgot to reconnect them.
None of these situations turned out well.
Have two ways out of each room
Your investor clients cannot force tenants to make an emergency escape plan, but they can help by making sure there are two ways out of every room. In 2013, a 22-year-old Boston University student died in a fire after getting trapped in her attic apartment. The family filed a lawsuit against the landlord and brokers, accusing them of renting an illegal apartment with insufficient exits and a faulty fire alarm system. Investors should make sure your investment property meets the fire code (e.g., be careful to remedy non-conforming bedrooms), and make an effort to educate your tenants about fire risks around the home.
Heeding the above tips can help your investor clients and their tenants prevent avoidable fires!