SF Apartment : December 2017
Better Safe than Sorry
by Kilby Stenkamp
In light of the recent fires in Northern California, fire safety and preparedness is on my radar. On Sunday, October 8, I spent the night at my parents’ house in Sonoma, and I woke up to complete chaos on Monday, October 9. So many people faced tragedy; homes, properties and lives were lost. The fires were a life-changing event.
In the aftermath of the fires, my awareness of fire precautions and disaster planning has grown immensely. Everywhere I looked during the weeks following the fire I saw potential fire hazards, from debris-filled gutters, to overgrown plants, dried leaves, old wood, outdated smoke detectors and blocked exits. When we were evacuated, I really wasn’t prepared and didn’t consider all of these things. In hindsight, there was a lot I should have and could have done. In the end, we were lucky, and I am very grateful.
While a disaster is never planned, you can be prepared. Before the fires reached my parents’ neighborhood, we had a window of opportunity to protect ourselves and our property. A neighbor suggested that everyone take pictures of their homes inside and out, in case we needed to make an insurance claim later. (My appreciation of neighbors, friends and family has also grown immensely.) I grabbed my iPhone and snapped away. This was not an ideal accounting of contents, but at the time, it was all we could do. My insurance broker agreed: pictures are a great idea and can be helpful when making a claim. Pictures taken after the fact can also help you remember important details about your contents.
Our attic was full of boxes, and who knows what was in them. I’m sure the family silver was there somewhere. Take time every few years to make a thoughtful list of what you own. The most common mistake, per my insurance broker, is failure to update policies. She told me about a family who had an elaborate and expensive home-technology system installed. They didn’t update their insurance policy, and it wasn’t covered when their home burned to the ground.
In terms of income property, check your policy to review coverage, and see what personal property is covered. The rule of thumb is if you take a building, turn it upside down and shake it, everything that falls out is personal property. This includes appliances. If you’ve remodeled or made any additions, renovations or upgrades, make sure you call your agent. Immediately following the fire, there was a moratorium on changing deductibles and coverage limits. As soon as the moratorium was lifted, I upped the contents coverage on one of my rental properties by $70,000. It took me about one second to decide that another $48 a year was well worth it!
If you’ve got renters, remind them they should have their own renter’s policy (these policies are very reasonable). The best time to insist on renter’s insurance is prior to signing a lease; after the lease is signed, it’s almost impossible to get tenants to comply, and it’s non-enforceable. There are countless stories in Northern California about renters who lost everything and did not have insurance coverage.
Up until recently, fire safety was not as high on my list as it should have been, especially in my own home. We lost power during the fires, and I’d never thought twice about the hard-wired smoke detectors. I was so thankful when the power was restored, because it meant a good night’s sleep. At 1:30 a.m. that night, the smoke detectors went off, the interconnected system sounded off with battery warnings. Apparently, the loss of power had drained the battery backup system in one or more of the smoke detectors. In the middle of the night I took drastic and unnecessary measures to make the noise stop. A simple counter-clockwise turn would have allowed me to remove the battery and silence the system. The next day, I ran to the local hardware store and replaced all the smoke detector batteries. The highest-rated battery I could find lasted five years, but I did find ultra-life ten-year batteries on Amazon. I can’t remember the last time I changed the batteries in the smoke detectors; this time I took a Sharpie and wrote the date on the label.
San Francisco law now mandates that new battery-operated smoke detectors contain a ten-year rated non-removable battery, and the detector must be marked with the installation date. On complete remodels, hard-wired interconnected smoke detectors are required. If you really want to take fire safety to the next level, look into the Nest Second Generation smoke sensor, which lasts over a decade, and can be hushed from your phone. Make a point to check your rental properties yearly to make sure the batteries are up to date, the placement is correct, and that the detectors are functioning. Money would be well spent on new detectors with non-removable ten-year batteries. I was amazed at the variety of smoke detectors on the shelves; some were even room specific, apparently adjusted for sensitivity.
My friend and fellow rental-property owner, Irving, has grown weary with the complexities of owning rental property in San Francisco. Keeping up with new laws, like the Tenant Fire Safety Disclosure, has sent him over the edge. Fortunately, as members of the San Francisco Apartment Association, compliance was not as hard as Irving had thought it would be. If you’ve got any questions regarding the new disclosures, go to the SFAA website.
Recently, Irving asked me to meet an inspector for a periodic housing inspection at a three-unit property in Hayes Valley. The inspector was great, even though we didn’t pass because of outdated fire extinguishers. Irving had extinguishers everywhere, but the tags had long expired. In addition to the smaller portable units, he had some larger older models. Due to the weight of the larger extinguishers, they weren’t acceptable; presumably, in the case of a fire, a tenant would have trouble lifting and operating them. It occurred to me I didn’t know a lot about fire extinguishers, other than that the units must be charged and tagged each year.
It wasn’t easy getting straightforward information about extinguishers. The fire department gave me a quick overview, but I still wasn’t clear. They deferred to the California Fire Code and said anything mandated locally would be superseded by state law. The California Fire Code, needless to say, is not easy reading. Finally, I called a local fire extinguisher company. An extinguisher is required on every floor, within a 75-foot walking distance—which means that if you have a 150-foot hallway, the extinguisher should be mounted in the middle of the hallway. There are specific ratings for the extinguishers: they must be visible, accessible, and installed on hangers or brackets.
As it turns out, Irving needs four extinguishers, one on each residential level, and one in the breezeway. The extinguisher company will add us to their calendar, and each year the extinguishers will be updated. All things considered, we’re going to notice the tenants and check the smoke and CO2 detectors too.
I’m now in full-swing declutter mode. Most of us tend to collect things, and the attic or anywhere out of site is the perfect place to forget about these treasures. I’m amazed at the amount of stuff that we’ve collected inside and out, in a relatively short amount of time. While at Irving’s property, the inspector noticed the tenants had started storing under the wood deck, creating a fire hazard. The tenants were very cooperative and moved the items immediately. The lattice work, which had somehow become loose, is now secured.
It’s really important to periodically check your properties; in San Francisco expect the unexpected. Tenants, like everyone else, tend to accumulate. Make sure they aren’t storing where they’re not supposed to and/or creating a fire and safety hazard. Over the years I’ve seen some pretty outrageous things: grow rooms with funky wiring, bonus bedrooms not included in the lease, a giant hot tub and party room, even a renegade maintenance man who took over a basement and added a bathroom.
Make fire safety a priority. The recent Northern California fires were an eye-opening experience, a time for all of us to take an in-depth look at our properties and insurance.
Kilby Stenkamp is a realtor at Vanguard Properties. She can be reached at email@example.com or 415-370-7582.