Hurricanes: What the Heck? (Part 2)

This post is the second in a series called Hurricanes: What the Heck? that focuses on hurricane preparation tips for landlords and property managers in the Tampa Bay area. If you missed the first one, you can check it out here.

In this post, I’m going to draw heavily on my experience from Hurricane Irma in 2017, and how it impacted my tenants as their landlord and property manager.

Note: Many of the recommendations below require an open line of communication with your tenants. I cannot overstress the importance of having current, accurate contact information for each or your tenants. An annual update of contact (and secondary/emergency contact) information for all tenants is certainly a best practice!

 

Pre-Landfall Issues and FAQs

If there’s one thing I learned during the approach of Hurricane Irma, it’s that your tenants will have tons of questions as a hurricane approaches! I’ve listed some of these frequently asked questions, along with my recommended responses, below:

Is our property in an evacuation zone? Does the evacuation order apply to us?

While this is something you should know about your properties as a landlord or property manager, it’s also something your tenants should know, regardless of where they live. Each county maintains a website where you can look up your evacuation zone, as well as color coded maps which depict the different hurricane evacuation levels/zones.

Remember: hurricane evacuation levels can and do differ from flood zones, see my Flood Zones 101 post for a refresher.

Here are links to the Pinellas and Hillsborough County websites for evacuation zone lookups:

Pinellas County

Hillsborough County

(If you’re looking for another county, just google “Name of County + hurricane evacuation zones”)

 

What should we do? Should we evacuate?

Whether they are in a designated evacuation zone or not, your tenants will want you to tell them what to do. My advice is: Don’t give advice. Even if your advice is accurate and well-intended today, the situation, and the official guidance from government officials, could change tomorrow.

Rather than giving specific advice or instructions, instruct your tenants to follow the instructions of their local emergency management officials, and refer them to the Tampa Bay Regional Planning Council’s Hurricane Guide for preparation tips, shelter lists, and evacuation maps.

 

Can we/Should we board up our windows? And do we have to pay or it?

In my previous post, we discussed the benefits of impact rated windows and storm shutters. Whether you have these or not, your tenants will feel the need to do something to protect their belongings, and many will ask you if they can board up their windows.

In most cases, there is probably very little harm in letting your tenants board up their windows. It gives them something proactive to do, makes them feel better prepared, and could very well ending up protecting your property and their belongings from storm damage. In most cases, we’ve even reimbursed tenants for the cost of supplies.  I would, however, caution tenants against climbing ladders or trying to board up second-story windows. 

 

Can we defer our rent payment?

Depending on the time of month, your tenants may have very legitimate reasons for spending their rent money on disaster preparedness supplies (batteries, flashlights, water), other necessities such as non-perishable foods and prescription medications, or evacuation-related expenses such as lodging and fuel. As a landlord or property manager, it may help to consider this in advance and develop a policy on rent deferment and suspension of late fees and other penalties during an emergency.

 

Post Landfall Issues

Up to this point, we’ve really only discussed how to prepare for a storm. But what happens after the storm passes?

Damage Assessment – Immediately following a storm, your first priority should be damage assessment and making contact with each of your tenants. At a minimum, we’ve found it useful to drive past each property, snap a quick photo to confirm the condition of the property, and make contact with the tenant to ensure there are no problems that weren’t visible from the street (such as roof leaks, electrical, or plumbing issues).

By far the most common damage from hurricane Irma was damaged fencing. A close second was downed tree limbs. Fence contractors and tree trimming companies are still busy from storm damage, even a year after Irma!

 

Insurance claims – If your property sustained significant damage (and it looks like it will cost more than your named storm deductible to repair it), then you should consider starting the insurance claim process as soon as possible. Yours will be one of perhaps thousands of claims being processed, and submitting your claim a day or two ahead of others can make weeks of difference on the back end.

 

Repairs – In some cases, it may be necessary to make temporary repairs while waiting on insurance claims and/or contractors. The most common temporary repair by far is the infamous blue tarp to cover roof damage (which can be a critical step in preventing further water intrusion and additional damage to your property). Other common temporary repairs are coverings for broken windows and temporary fencing.

Longer-term, you’ll want to work with your insurance adjuster (if applicable) and/or contractors to ensure the permanent repairs are permitted and meet all current building codes. Municipalities also tend to crack down on unlicensed contractors following a major storm, so be careful to vet your contractors carefully for licensing and insurance to avoid any unnecessary hassles and delays.

 

Rent Collections – As mentioned above, your tenants may have exhausted their rent money and/or savings on storm preparation and evacuation, and will have likely missed work due to the storm because of closures and evacuations. It helps immensely to have a plan in place ahead of time for waiving late fees and/or deferring rent payments, if applicable.

 

Vacancies and Abandonment – While we did not face this problem following Irma, there are plenty of horror stories following major storms such as Andrew and Katrina of tenants evacuating, and then simply never returning. There can be several legitimate reasons for this – a tenant may have been planning to move anyway, and the storm just expedited their plans; Or the tenant may simply not have enough money to return, or an employer to return to, so they decide to stay with their friends or relatives longer than planned.

In such a situation, it is crucial to understand State laws concerning abandonment and possession. In all cases, it’s better to communicate with the tenant and document any early lease terminations in writing. Taking possession of a unit or disposing of a tenant’s possessions prematurely can have severe repercussions for landlords. Be sure to consult with your property manager and an attorney before doing so.

 

The Off Season

November 30th marks the official end of hurricane season each year. But this is no time to rest on your laurels! Rather, the “off season” is a great time to check up on your insurance policies, and inspect your property for issues such as tree trimming or other exterior repairs that might be needed.

The winter months are also an ideal time to schedule upgrades such as window replacements and installation of storm shutters (as you can imagine, these guys tend to get busier the closer we get to hurricane season).

 

Other Resources

I hope this series of posts has given you some food for thought with regards to preparing your rental properties for hurricane season. If you have other burning questions about something I didn’t address, please leave a comment below!

In closing, I wanted to share some additional resources I’ve learned to rely on over the years:

  • The National Hurricane Center (https://www.nhc.noaa.gov/) – The National Hurricane Center is a component of NOAA and is the official source for hurricane forecasting. In short, the NHC shares their forecasts with the media, and the media is supposed to disseminate the information to the public. As we all know, some media outlets like to sensationalize the news in order to increase their ratings. So, it’s nice to be able to get the unfiltered version from the NHC at times. 

 

  • The National Weather Service – Tampa Bay Office (https://www.weather.gov/tbw/) – While the National Hurricane Center’s job is to track and forecast hurricanes, the local National Weather Service office is there to forecast local impacts, and issue local watches, warnings, and other weather products for hurricanes as well as other weather.

 

  • Dennis Phillips (https://www.facebook.com/denisphillipswfts/) – Dennis is a local TV meteorologist in the Tampa Bay area with a reputation for being a straight shooter and not sensationalizing the weather. Basically, he’ll let you know when it’s time to sit tight, and when it’s time to panic. He also has a great sense of humor!

 

  • It Could Happen Tomorrow (https://youtu.be/im_N4pO_AtE) – This is an episode of a TV Series aired by The Weather Channel around 2007. I used to use it as a training video (with The Weather Channel’s permission) when I worked in emergency management. If you ever doubted the seriousness of a major (Category 4-5) storm hitting the Tampa Bay area directly, it will set you straight!
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