Top 8 ways to know if your rental meets safety standards

Written on July 11, 2018 by

The most successful landlords understand the importance and value of conducting regular property inspections. Making sure your rental meets the safety standards mandated by statutes (and common sense) is the best way protect your tenants and your bank account.

Make a checklist for each property you own, and update it when you inspect the property. Include these eight important items on your list.

1. Do you have GFI outlets?

The National Electrical Code began to require Ground Fault Interrupting outlets (GFIs) in 1971, and, over the years, it expanded the list of locations where GFIs should be installed. These include:

  • Kitchens
  • Bathrooms
  • Laundry rooms
  • Anywhere outside

Many older rentals don’t have these safety devices, and that increases the risk of shocks and fires. If a non-GFI outlet were to overheat and catch fire in a place in which a GFI is required, insurance might not cover the damage.

You don’t necessarily have to retrofit all non-GFI outlets in a kitchen or bathroom. You could simply install a GFI breaker in the main panel, or you can locate the first outlet on the circuit and replace that one with a GFI. If it’s properly wired, it will protect all downline outlets by tripping whenever one of them detects a ground fault.

Related: How to get your landlord to fix a bad electrical system

2. Are there smoke detectors?

Most states have smoke alarm laws, so it’s a good idea to become familiar with those in your state or municipality and obey them. State or local regulations usually specify where the smoke detectors should be, and naturally, most fire prevention authorities require the smoke detectors to be in working order.

Check the smoke alarms in your rentals yearly by pushing the test button on each one and ensuring that the alarm sounds. Respond promptly when a renter complains of chirping noises because that means the battery is weak and the smoke alarm may not function in an emergency.

As of March, 2018, 27 states require carbon monoxide detectors in residential units through statute, and another 11 states require them through the state building code. To avoid having to keep track of both smoke and carbon monoxide detectors, consider installing combination units. These come with sealed batteries to fire code requirements in California and elsewhere.

Related: The long and short of smoke alarms

3. Are the outdoor railings safe?

If your rental has a deck or balcony, the railings need to be at least 36-42 inches high, depending on whether the local governing authority relies on the International Residential Code or the International Building Code. The railings must be able to withstand a minimum shear force, which is also specified by code.

Wood railings tend to deteriorate over the years. The wood rots, and the bolts holding the posts to the deck fascia work themselves loose. Check the railings on your decks and balconies every year. Tighten loose fasteners and replace rotting wood.

4. How safe are your stairs?

You don’t want renters, visitors, or anyone else to slip and fall on any of your stairways or walkways. You can’t prevent every accident, but you can minimize the risk of one occurring by keeping stairs in good repair.

Replace rotted wood on wooden staircases and fix cracks on concrete ones before they widen and turn into hazards. Painting stairs and walkways with a non-slip coating is a good way to guard against loss of traction in wet weather.

5. Do the doors lock?

Most states require landlords to provide secure housing, and courts are increasingly awarding large settlements to tenants who sue landlords after burglaries or break-ins.

A secure exterior door is one with both a locking lockset and a deadbolt. Re-key the locks or change them with every turnover to eliminate the circulation of spare keys. Even better, equip the doors with electronic or combination locks. Discourage renters from duplicating keys, and keep a log of the keys that you hand out.

In high-crime areas, installing an alarm system is an added precaution that could prevent a burglary and keep you out of court.

Related:

4 considerations when choosing locks for your rental properties

Should landlords (or tenants) install an alarm system?

6. Is that paint safe?

You should be concerned about lead-based paint if you have a rental that was built before 1978. Before that date, lead was a common ingredient in interior paints, and paint containing this toxic metal may be flaking off your old wooden windowsills right now. If your renters have children, and the children ingest lead-based paint, they could suffer developmental and neurological problems.

It’s in your interest, as well as the interest of your renters, to test painted walls and woodwork for lead. If you get a positive reading, consult a remediation expert to determine the best way to deal with it. According to federal law, you must disclose the presence of lead paint to your renters.

Related: Understanding “the lead disclosure rule”

7. Is there a pest infestation?

Besides being a general nuisance, pests such as mice, rats, and cockroaches are unsanitary and can spread disease and generally lower safety standards in the rental. Renters may attract them by leaving food around or failing to clean up, but it’s ultimately the landlord’s responsibility to get rid of them. If you add a monthly payment to a local pest control company to the rent, you won’t have to worry about this problem.

8. Are the appliances maintained?

The dryer: This tops the list of appliances that need an inspection and possible maintenance at least once a year. For the sake of fire safety and dryer performance, check the lint trap and the vent opening in the side of the house for lint buildup. Clean the vent if you can’t feel a steady stream of air from the vent opening when the dryer is on.

The washing machine: Check the lint trap on the washing machine.

The water heater: Check for leaks. You should flush the water heater every three to five years to prevent leaks and maintain its performance.

Related: How long should appliances last?

Mention known issues in the lease

You may not be able to correct all the issues that lower safety standards in your rental as quickly as you’d like. It’s important to get to them eventually, but until you do, disclose them in the lease as the law requires. That isn’t guaranteed to get you out of hot water if an accident occurs, but at least you’ll be following the law, and you won’t be misrepresenting the rental.

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