Five Steps for Responding to Water Intrusion Emergency
Reports of water leaking from a bathroom ceiling or other types of water intrusion in a unit are serious complaints that deserve your immediate attention. Sometimes a pipe may break, in which case a household is not at fault. Other times, a resident’s child may have thrown toys down the toilet, causing plumbing problems, or a resident may have forgotten to shut off the tub faucet.
If you or your staff’s response time to water intrusion complaints is too slow, the damage to your property can multiply quickly, making it increasingly difficult to contain the problem and collect the full amount of the repair costs from the head of the household if he was at fault. The following are five steps to help you quickly address reports of water intrusion, protect yourself from false claims by problem households, and help you recoup repair costs from at-fault residents.
Step #1: Find Source of Leak
Once you’re made aware of a water intrusion, the highest priority is to protect the site. Finding the source of the problem may entail accessing units. In situations in which a resident is at fault, oftentimes the resident isn’t in his unit.
Your lease should include language that spells out your access rights in cases of emergency. And any sort of water intrusion would qualify as an emergency because it’s only a matter of time before the situation gets worse. Initially, water or moisture may damage your building’s structure. However, without a thorough investigation and repair, a water intrusion problem may eventually lead to mold and possibly affect the health of the residents at your site.
Proper lease language ensures that your households are aware of your emergency access rights and that there’s no misunderstanding between you and your residents regarding access, says New York attorney Niles Welikson. We’ve provided Model Lease Language: Spell Out Your Access Rights, that you can adapt and use to communicate your emergency access rights.
Step #2: Document Contact Efforts Before Entering Unit
Unless there’s severe flooding, the site owner or manager should make reasonable attempts to contact the household before accessing the unit and let the household member know what you’re doing to fix the problem. Every household should provide the owner with updated contact information in case of an emergency. The resident may have helpful information—such as the presence of pets or a possible source of the leak—that may assist you.
Making reasonable attempts at contacting the household and documenting these efforts will also protect you from false theft and privacy invasion claims from problem residents.
Step #3: Bring Camera and Witness to Problem Area
The owner or the person fixing the problem should have an additional witness present, such as the managing agent. A problem household may falsely claim theft or may have sabotaged property to be able to withhold rent. Photo documentation of the problem before repair may also help prove that the resident was responsible for any damage to the unit.
Step #4: Put Household on Notice
If you or your staff had to enter a resident’s unit without notice, you should acknowledge this fact to the resident and inform him of what you did to address the emergency and the next steps you intend to take. You can leave a letter explaining the circumstances of the water intrusion, your attempts to reach the resident, and the date and time of entry. For an example, you can adapt our Model Letter: Inform Resident of Emergency Entry.
Step #5: Inspect Adjacent Units, Assess Responsibility
Once you fix the leak, it could be the case that the neighbor’s unit is in worse shape than where the problem originated. You should assess the extent of the total damage in the resident’s unit and adjacent units.
Also, if the resident was responsible for the water intrusion, he should pay for unit damage that occurred as a result of his act or neglect. Households have an implied obligation to protect your property from becoming damaged or destroyed. If the resident refuses to pay, with proper proof and witness testimony, you should be able to convince a judge that the resident has caused what is known legally as “waste.” This type of damage goes way beyond ordinary wear and tear. Permitting waste means letting avoidable damage happen. Failing to close windows during a rainstorm and letting a tub overflow are examples of permitting waste.
Niles Welikson, Esq.: Senior Member, Horing, Welikson & Rosen, P.C., 11 Hillside Ave., Williston Park, NY 11596; www.hwrpclaw.com.