Mighty Small

Fighting Fire with Fire

written by Kilby Stenkamp

Are wildfires and scheduled blackouts the new normal?

The definition of the new normal per the Urban Dictionary is “The current state of being after some dramatic change has transpired. What replaces the expected, usual, typical state after an event occurs. The new normal encourages one to deal with current situations rather than lamenting what could have been.” During the first power outage up north, I couldn’t reach my parents by phone. I was able to get PG&E on the phone, and they provided very scripted answers and advised me that power outages are the new normal. I find this phrase so annoying and refuse to buy into the new normal. Fire is unpredictable; however, there are preventive measures that can help save lives and property. It is extremely important to be aware and prepared for an emergency, and to take precautionary measures in your home and investment property.

For the second time this year, I’m up north scrambling to get ready for the upcoming power outage. Two weeks ago, I purchased battery-operated lanterns with USB ports; they were very affordable at Costco. They didn’t come with batteries, which I didn’t notice until I pulled them out of the box. I needed eight D-batteries per lantern. After going to five different stores, I’m pretty sure I came home with the last D batteries in Sonoma. The local hardware store that had been reported to have barrels of D batteries were all out. There were long lines of people buying all kinds of supplies preparing for another power outage. It was a very eerie scene.

At the moment, my car has a full tank of gas. I’ll park outside as I don’t have a battery backup on the garage door, and we have an electronic gate. If we’re evacuated, I’ll need my car. Since everyone is sold out of reusable ice packs for the freezer, I’ve filled milk cartons and bottles with water and placed them in the freezer. I’ve got my ice chest ready to go and will use the frozen containers to keep things cold. Being organized and prepared is extremely important in the face of an emergency situation.

We have been lucky so far with no power outages in San Francisco. Regardless, I encourage everyone to have an emergency plan for your home and property. Get basic supplies together like lanterns (with back up batteries), flashlights, an ice chest, reusable ice packs, solar cell phone charger, and a long lighter. A portable radio is also a handy item to have around. During the Tubbs fire two years ago, networking with friends and neighbors was hugely helpful. In my parents’ neighborhood, all the families with children left. My parents stayed and I joined them. We were able to keep in communication with everyone by text messages. We checked on each other’s homes to make sure looters hadn’t broken in, and we updated each other with information. You should make sure you have updated contact information for your tenants and neighbors. On the last power outage, my parents lost their land line. Their cell phone carrier had a tower go down and their cell phone was useless. Fortunately, I was able to text friends in the area who stopped by to make sure everyone was okay.

As San Francisco property owners, we have a huge responsibility not only to our tenants, but also to keep our investment safe. Everyone should conduct an annual smoke and CO2 detector check. It’s a great excuse to give a 24-hour notice to check on your property. Often, I represent tenant-occupied properties, and more times than not I find hazardous situations. Next to finding smoke detectors without batteries, the most common hazard is items stored haphazardly in front of furnaces and water heaters, often combustible. Make sure fire extinguishers and alarm systems are inspected annually. Test fire sprinkler systems every five years. Exits should be properly marked. For fire safety questions, call SFFD or a local company like International Fire. Both offer fire safety training, including how to use a fire extinguisher and evacuation plans, for example. 

Also consider a battery backup for garage doors. Recently I had to replace a garage motor on a rental property, and we had to update the system to include a backup battery. The cost ran around $1,000. We’re budgeting for the remaining garage doors as a safety measure. “Any and all automatic garage doors sold in California after July 1, 2019 must, by operation of law, include a backup battery system that can adequately provide power to operate the overhead garage doors in the event of a power outage. The new law does not require existing openers to be backed up with batteries, but it is recommended that all homeowners consider upgrading for the increased safety features. When an opener is replaced it must be a battery backed up system.”

My insurance agent recommends that property owners take video or photos of their homes and properties to remind them of what they have. Open closets, storage areas and drawers when documenting. Two years ago, I realized my contents coverage was low and I upped my insurance, the cost was minimal for peace of mind. Recently I adjusted coverage on all the properties as replacement costs have gone up significantly. I plan to drop a line to all my tenants to remind them to keep their renters’ insurance up to date. We no longer allow a move-in until we have proof of renter’s insurance. Historically I have not calendared a reminder to tenants on their anniversary date to provide an updated copy of their insurance. As I understand, requiring renter’s insurance is difficult to enforce. A gentle reminder can’t hurt and may help me in the future if anything were to happen.

Market Update
The market feels like it has flattened a bit with all the distractions going on in politics, statewide rent control and now the devastating fires. Every day I get hordes of emails with price adjustments, bonuses advertised for selling agents, transparent pricing, et cetera. I’m finding, though, that certain properties are still selling quickly. I was pleasantly surprised to run numbers on 2-4-unit sales and see the third quarter of this year improved over last year. There were less sales this year, however numbers are up. In Q3 2018, the median sales price was $1,850,000; in Q3 of this year, the median sales price is $2,000,000. Price per square foot went from $680.61 to $731.46. Days on market increased by three days. For now this is great news. I’m really curious what the fourth quarter numbers and the year as a whole will look like.

The other day my mom said, “If you live long enough, you’ll see everything.” She also likes to say: “Just when you think you’ve seen it all, you see something new.” I’m finding these statements to be more accurate every day. I’m completely flabbergasted by everything going on in the world today. The good news is I’m getting pretty good at emergency preparation. A couple trial runs definitely put me ahead of the curve. I’m also happy to report that during emergency situations, there is a huge sense of community and camaraderie. My friends and co-workers have offered to house people who have been evacuated. They are volunteering to help prepare food, bringing sold out supplies where needed, donating blankets, clothing and items necessary to those that have lost everything. And of course, we can’t forget the first responders who put their lives on the line to help others.

Kilby Stenkamp is a realtor at Vanguard Properties. She can be reached at kilby@vanguardsf.com or 415-370-7582.