The Smart Investor’s Guide to Winterization

An ounce of prevention could help you prevent major damage and expenses at your rental properties.

by Lindsey Younts

Though the chill is already seeping into the September air, the harsh winter cold still seems so far away.

But now is the time to get your rental properties ready for freezing temperatures. The worst thing in the world is trying to put your winterization solutions in place when it’s 20 degrees outside.

Your checkbook will thank you, too. According to the Insurance Information Institute, the average insurance claim for water damage related to winter storms is $5,900. That’s $1.25 billion a year in payouts by the insurance companies over each of the past 10 years. The sad thing about this statistic is almost 100 percent of these incidents could have been prevented with just a little forethought.

Below is a simple winterization plan for the major systems in your investment properties. These are the most critical things to review before winter hits.

HOW TO ICE YOUR FROZEN-PIPE PROBLEM

Frozen pipes and the resultant water damage cause more harm than all other types of winter-related incidents combined. It’s not just pipes that take the hit—walls, ceilings, flooring and other structural pieces can be severely damaged, too. That’s why preventing freezing in your pipes should be your No. 1 goal.

For vacant properties, the first step is usually very easy. Locate and turn off the property’s main water shutoff valve, preferably one that is outside. If the property is supplied by a well, then also turn off the breaker and main supply valve at the pump system.

After the water is off, turn off the gas or electricity and drain the water heater. A faucet or spigot will need to be opened to allow air to flow in the piping as water is drained out of the heater tank.

Water then should be drained from the property’s entire water supply system; all the faucets and fixture shutoff valves should be left open. If the house is supplied by a well, the pressure tank should also be drained.

Though gravity may be sufficient to drain the plumbing in many vacant homes, standing water will remain in some pipes. Though the water is no longer under pressure, this remaining water can still freeze and may strain some pipes and fittings.

That’s why it is a very good idea to use an air compressor to blow any leftover liquid from your property’s water supply lines. There are special fittings you can employ to connect the compressor to the house’s plumbing. Then you can clear out the lines by systematically closing and opening faucets and valves. Open the plumbing fixtures farthest from the air compressor and work backward.

Keep in mind that water also runs through many appliances such as washing machines, dishwashers, ice-makers in refrigerators, water softeners, filters and water treatment systems. Each of these will need to be drained, disconnected or both.

It is recommended that nontoxic antifreeze (the kind you use in RVs, it’s usually pink in color) be poured into the bottom of the dishwashers and washing machines to prevent any leftover water in the pumps from freezing.

Once all the water supply lines and appliances are completely empty, flush the toilets until they are empty. Then winterize toilets and other sink and lavatory drain traps by putting nontoxic antifreeze solution in them to prevent the residual water from freezing.

If at all possible, leave the property’s heating system on and set at 45 to 50 degrees during extreme cold. This simple solution can eliminate many problems even though it may cost $100 to $200 per month. This is a small price to pay in view of the potential damage repair cost from frozen pipes.

DON’T FORGET YOUR HEATING SYSTEMS

You might not think a furnace would contain water, but some do. High-efficiency furnaces (also called condensing furnaces) generate a significant amount of condensation from the water vapor in the flue gases.

These systems, as well as air conditioners, have a condensate drain line. Sometimes the condensate feeds into a floor drain, but if there’s no drain available, the condensate drains into a small pump, which pushes the condensate fluid “uphill” into a plumbing drain or to an outside location. Though there is less chance of damage, these items should also be reviewed.

Some properties have more elaborate heating systems such as hot water boilers, water source heat pumps, solar panels or radiant floor heaters. In such cases, it is very strongly recommended to hire a professional familiar with these systems. These heating systems sometimes circulate water instead of a freeze-resistant fluid, or may interconnect with the plumbing system or hot water heater. Don’t assume these systems could simply be turned off without any danger of freezing.

DOORS, WINDOWS AND ROOFS

Next, make sure the door and window openings are tight to help eliminate heat loss. A little caulk, weather stripping or threshold rubber can go a long way. Storm windows and doors are another solution that can help prevent heat loss and draftiness. This may be cost-prohibitive, but is a long-term solution.

Roofs and gutters need close inspection, too. Look for loose or broken shingles, especially if the property is located in an area with occasional hailstorms.

Check the flashing around chimneys and anything else that penetrates the roof; make sure the flashing is capable of preventing melting snow from leaking into the property. Adding additional insulation in the attic may also prevent ice dams. Make sure all gutters and downspouts are clean of debris to allow melting snow to drain off the roof.

Additionally, heavy accumulation of snow should be removed from roofs. Roof structures are designed to handle additional wind and roof load, but the accumulation of excessive snow can present a static load that easily exceeds design limits.

There are many other things that may need attention in the winterization process—things like foundation openings, chimneys, wood stoves, duct repair and attic or pipe insulation, to name a few. Each property is unique and will need a specific winterization plan.

Remember, a small amount of winterization preventive action could save thousands of dollars and lots of aggravation.

Lindsey Younts is a veteran real estate investor with more than 25 years of experience. He is the president of the Younts Group, a real estate investment firm with nationwide holdings. He is the founder of Econohomes and the former President and Executive Director of the Real Estate Investor Education Center. LindseyYounts.com (803) 646-1980

Article Compliments of Community Investor Magazine