Four Tips for Avoiding the High Cost of Emergency Repairs
HUD rules make it hard for you to pass on the extra cost of emergency repairs to your residents, so you’re the one who will be stuck paying them. Fortunately, you can keep emergency repair costs to a minimum by reducing the number of these repairs your site needs, and by planning ahead to keep their costs and the damage they cause under control. Here are four tips that will help you avoid having to make emergency repairs and control the costs of those emergency repairs you can’t avoid.
Tip #1: Keep up with Preventive Maintenance
You can avoid unnecessary repair costs by preventing emergencies from occurring in the first place. The best way to do this is through preventive maintenance, says management expert Birute Skurdenis. Don’t try to save money by putting off necessary periodic maintenance and replacement of site equipment, appliances, roofs, fixtures, boilers, plumbing, HVAC, and electrical systems. Delaying will end up costing you much more in emergency costs. For instance, Skurdenis recalls a time early on in her management career when an 82-unit site she worked for tried to put off doing preventive maintenance on the site’s main boiler system until the start of the next calendar year. But as luck would have it, the boiler broke down during the Christmas holidays. The site had to pay the plumbers double-time, spending much more than the preventive maintenance would have cost.
Tip #2: Educate Residents
You can also prevent some emergencies by educating residents about how to avoid common household repair emergencies, such as stopped-up toilets, clogged sink and shower drains, and blown fuses. For instance, you can cut down on plumbing problems by giving residents instructions on removing hair from drains or telling them where to put shelving in bathrooms to keep toiletries from falling into the toilet, says Skurdenis. This is especially important at assisted sites with special needs populations, she notes.
You may also prevent emergencies by educating residents and implementing house rules about illegal appliances. Many units, especially older ones, aren’t set up to handle washing machines, dryers, and other large appliances. But even if your units don’t have hookups or the capacity to handle these appliances, some residents may still bring in portable units and connect them to the electrical outlets and plumbing fixtures. These machines can cause power failures, sewage backups, floods, and hot- and cold-water surges that can affect other residents at your site.
Tip #3: Keep Extra Parts, Equipment, and Appliances in Stock
Keep extra parts and equipment you may eventually need to make emergency repairs in stock. This includes such items as plumbing supplies, electrical parts, door locks, smoke detectors, and garbage disposals. You can buy these items when the price is right so you’re not forced to pay top dollar when you need them. This also cuts down on the cost of staff time spent shopping—often longer than necessary—to pick up one item. For instance, having a maintenance staffer pick up a $1 item can end up costing you $15 or more in staff time. This can add up over time if staffers make repeated trips to get one or two items. And you can reduce the time it takes to make repairs if you have the items on hand, particularly special-order items, such as unique lighting fixtures, or appliances designed for individuals with disabilities, says Skurdenis.
Having extra items on hand is especially helpful to avoid delays in fixing problems that pose a threat to residents and could get you in legal hot water, such as broken doors and locks. It’s important to make these repairs immediately because, if by chance a crime occurs between the time you learn of the problem and the time you repair it, you may have to pay big damages to the victim. The same is true if you delay replacing or repairing smoke detectors and a fire occurs. A court could view your delay as strong evidence of negligence and find you liable. If you have an extra lock or smoke detector on hand, you can perform repairs faster—and possibly save money at the same time.
It’s also a good idea to keep extra major appliances on hand as well, if your site has the space and money. For example, it’s a good idea to have at least one extra stove, toilet, and sink. You may need to replace some defective appliances immediately to comply with HUD or state habitability requirements. If you have staffers who live on-site, you could make an agreement with them to use the appliances in their units as emergency replacements for other residents.
Tip #4: Have Convenient Way to Reach Maintenance Staff for Emergencies
It’s important that your maintenance staff learn about emergencies right away so they can react quickly to prevent certain emergencies, such as flooding toilets, from causing extensive damage requiring more costly repairs. One way to do this is by giving on-call maintenance staff cell phones to use in emergencies, and giving residents this emergency number. You can put the number in the resident handbook or give residents stickers they can place on their phones or refrigerators. A cell phone speeds up response time and eliminates costly delays from using voice mail. In many cases, the maintenance staffer can troubleshoot the problem over the phone or at least tell the resident what temporary measures to take to prevent further damage until the staffer or appropriate expert arrives to fix the problem. A cell phone can also reduce unnecessary overtime if the maintenance staffer tells the resident how to fix the problem herself or determines that the “emergency” can wait until the next workday.
Birute Skurdenis: Asset Manager, Merritt Community Capital, 1970 Broadway, Oakland, CA 94612; www.merrittcap.org.