If you’re a landlord, these basic tips will help you comply with Portland's "Life Safety" code in your rentals. They’ll also help you protect your current tenants and yourself when you pursue new tenants.
First… you need to make sure your building meets basic Life Safety guidelines.
1. Be sure the house address is clearly visible for emergency services.
There must be clearly visible numbers on the outside of the building as well as on the doors of each unit. This can be the difference between life and death when EMTs are responding to a 911 call.
2. Have working smoke and carbon dioxide detectors as required by law.
There are specific code requirements for location of working smoke and carbon dioxide detectors throughout your rental property. Make sure your tenants understand the importance of replacing batteries and of not disabling these devices. For more tips, check out the Southern Maine Landlord Association’s fire safety resources.
3. Maintain two exits from each unit.
If a window is the second exit, it must meet City of Portland Code requirements for window egress. External doors must be easy to access and lead safely downstairs.
4. Be sure halls, exits, and common areas are free of clutter.
This means trash, appliances, sports equipment, bicycles, laundry bags, storage units – you name it. You’re required to ensure a clear path from every exit door.
Next, you have to be reasonably cautious when you’re seeking new tenants. This protects you, as well as other tenants in the building. Remember, prospects are strangers after all.
5. Don’t include the property address when you advertise your unit for rent.
You don’t want people to know exactly where there’s an empty apartment. Don’t show street signs or house numbers in photos of the outside of the building.
6. Provide contact info – but don’t give out any personal info.
Provide your email and cell phone, but don’t say when you’re home, where and when you work – anything that would help someone break in or monitor your comings and goings. You could set up a separate email, specifically for the listing to keep your email inbox from getting clogged up.
7. Beware of Craigslist scams.
If you advertise on Craigslist you may receive an email from someone offering you more than your rental price, but only if you accept their check or money order. There are several variations to this scam, so be smart when dealing with people on the Internet. You may also receive a call from someone claiming they saw your same listing but for less rent. This too is a scam that is targeting renters. All you can do is 'flag' the fraudulent listing.
8. Be cautious when you meet with prospective tenants.
Most of the people you’ll meet are genuinely interested in finding a good place to live – but unfortunately, some people use rental ads to find vulnerable people and residences. When someone contacts you, do full interviews on the phone so you can get a sense of who they are – don’t just rely on email. Feel free to ask plenty of questions. Tell them they’ll need to show ID before you show them the apartment.
9. Use the buddy system.
Give a friend or family member the name and contact info for the person you’re showing the apartment to and the time of the showing. Let them know you’ll text them after the showing.
10. Be alert and aware.
Show apartments only during daylight hours. Don’t give out too much information at first. They don’t need to know if you live there. Have your phone with you and be sure it’s fully charged!
11. Protect the privacy of current tenants.
If you’re showing an apartment that’s currently occupied, ask the current tenants to secure their personal items, including mail, photographs and any medications. Stay close to the prospective tenant throughout the showing. Don’t let them go into any rooms by themselves, including the bathroom.
Also, If a tenant is living in the unit you’re advertising, don’t show their personal items in photos. You don’t want anyone checking out their valuables.
12. Do a thorough screening and background check.
Once you have interested prospects, you will want to have them fill out a rental application. Even if the applicants are married, each person over 18 should be screened. The process should be comprehensive and include both credit and criminal checks and be on a national basis. This protects your current tenants and yourself, and ensures you are in compliance with Fair Housing Laws.
13. Provide a solid, well-written lease that protects the rights of both the tenant and the property owner.
Make sure your lease covers Maine Tenant/Landlord Laws, includes all required disclosures, makes clear your policy on smoking, parking, pets, and other items. A strong lease is the best way to help avoid problems down the road.
These basic tips can help keep you and your tenants stay safe. As a landlord, you’re responsible for keeping up-to-date with the changing building code requirements and the city's "life safety" developments. Your commitment to “safety first” will protect your investment as well as your tenants.
- Linda Bancroft is a professional property manager and president and Chief Operations Officer of Aquarius Property Management