Snow removal—how to avoid being negligent

Written on December 19, 2017 by , updated on January 5, 2018

College StudentNo one likes shoveling and snow blowing, but snow removal is a job that someone has to do, and a number of communities enforce it.

Snow removal typically falls to tenants in single-family rentals and to landlords in multi-family dwellings, unless the lease specifies otherwise. It’s important to understand what’s required, because it’s usually means more than simply carving a narrow path in the middle of the sidewalk.

Know your snow removal ordinances

Considering that sidewalks, streets, and curbs are public thoroughfares, public agencies must keep them clean according to rules established by the Americans with Disabilities Act.

It’s common for jurisdictions to pass on some of these snow removal responsibilities to property owners, particularly when it comes to public sidewalks. According to ADA rules, you must remove enough snow from sidewalks to provide room for a wheelchair—at least 36 inches. You can’t deposit snow back onto public property—the curb or the street. Doing so would make it difficult for anyone to cross the street or get to their car. Some communities also mandate:

  • The application of gravel, sand, or ice to prevent slipping. Cities like Ann Arbor, Michigan provide free de-icing material at various pickup points.
  • Removal of snow from benches, fire hydrants, and other public amenities on the stretch of sidewalk that spans the property.
  • A limit to the height of snow piled next to the walkway. When the snowbank exceeds the designated height, you must pile excess snow elsewhere.

Related: Landlord-tenant state laws and regulations

There’s often a time limit and a fine for non-compliance

Local ordinances typically specify a timeline for snow removal. For example, in Ann Arbor, you must remove snow that has accumulated to a depth of 1 inch within 24 hours of the end of snowfall. This is typical. Cities that experience persistent mobility problems from snow accumulation are the most likely to have such ordinances.

Certain cities—including Chicago—take a hard-line on enforcement. They impose a fine on property owners, occupants, and business owners for non-compliance. In the case of Chicago, the fine could be anywhere from $50 to $500. In 2014, the City issued 226 citations.

Elderly and disabled people exempt

Snow removal is hazardous work, and every year it causes the death of 100 people. Cardiologist Barry Franklin advises people aged 55 years and older to avoid it. No community requires elderly or disabled people to comply with snow-removal ordinances. Some communities provide subsidies to allow disabled people to contract snow removal services, while others promote neighbor-to-neighbor networks.

Whose job is it?

As the property owner, the landlord bears the final responsibility for snow removal on adjacent sidewalks and driveways. That responsibility may transfer to able-bodied occupants of single-family dwellings, but when occupants are unable to shovel snow, the landlord may again be responsible. The important thing for the community is that someone clears the sidewalks to make them safe for pedestrians.

Put it in the lease

To avoid misunderstandings and to ensure the important task of snow removal gets done, it’s a good idea to include a lease clause to cover it. If the clause unambiguously specifies that occupants are responsible for snow removal, it’s up to them to hire a snow removal company in the event they become incapable of shoveling it themselves. Landlords of multi-dwelling units always have the option of contracting with one of the tenants to remove snow in lieu of hiring an outside agency.

Related: Should a tenant be paid for doing yard work?

Best practices

A snow blower does a better job than a shovel. It requires less effort on the part of the operator, and it doesn’t create snow banks on the side of the sidewalk or driveway. Like a lawnmower, it requires maintenance, and you have to store it somewhere, so it may not be a practical option for every situation. If you can, try making a deal with a neighbor who has one to clean your sidewalks.

When shoveling is the only option, a few tips can ensure the job gets done properly and without injury.

  • Use a lightweight shovel intended for snow removal.
  • Push the snow to the side of the sidewalk whenever possible. When you have to lift, bend your knees and use your legs for strength.
  • Work deep snow in layers, removing a little from the top before shoveling the rest.
  • Wear breathable clothes that allow your body to cool off.
  • Take frequent breaks. If you have a large area to shovel, consider doing some of it now and some a few hours later.

The bottom line

Because snow removal is such an important issue in cities that get heavy snowfalls, you should have a foolproof plan. Landlords with multi-family dwellings, as well as those with disabled renters, do well to have a contract with a snow removal company. That way, they are sure the job gets done with minimal effort on their part.

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