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How to Handle Emergency Maintenance Over the Holidays
Brennan Holowaty
May 16, 2023

It was several years back on a brisk winter morning in the Midwest that started out like many others. A still picture would have falsely portrayed to unsuspecting viewers that it was a beautiful day—the sun shining bright and the sky as blue as the ocean. But the mere visual betrayed a darker truth.

Despite the beaming sun, little of its precious warmth was felt by the poor inhabitants of Kansas City that fateful day. The temperature was sub-freezing and each breath appeared as if the exhaler had just inhaled a long drag off a cheap cigar. This bitter cold was accompanied by an even more bitter wind that would chill the toughest amongst us to their very bones.

Luckily, I sat inside a well-heated home as we awaited the festivities—for this brisk winter morning was in fact Christmas, and presents, a steak dinner, vintage wine, and family awaited me.

But suddenly, my phone rang. The shrill, factory-set ringtone cut through the tranquil air like a hot knife through butter. The caller had a number I did not recognize.

“Who could this be?” I pondered to myself.

Nowadays, I would know better than to answer what was most likely a robo sales call. But this was long ago, before the evil of cellphone solicitations became commonplace. Like a feline whose days are numbered, my curiosity got the best of me. I slid the green phone symbol across my screen and took the call.

Related: You Can Avoid After-Hours Phone Calls From Tenants—Here’s How

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“Hello?” I asked inquisitively with a subtle tremble in my voice.

“Hello, is this a manager at Stewardship Properties?” the voice replied.

A tenant had acquired my personal number. How could this be! And what devious intent did he have?

The how? A little digging revealed someone included my number on one of the back pages of our website. Blast!

The why? The caller’s stove had given out at the very moment it was needed most: on the eve of a family gathering in their home, much like the one taking place in my own. The horror…

They asked if my conscience could compel me to send a maintenance tech out to save their Christmas. “We had planned a big gathering,” they pleaded.

Searching for possible solutions in my head and googling to see whether there was the slightest chance our appliance repair person was working on Christmas (he wasn’t) came up snake eyes. The darkness gathered as all roads closed before us.

With a frog in my throat and tear in my eye, I informed them of the predicament. There was nothing we could do for them until the morrow. Not every story has a happy ending, and this Shakespearean tragedy would be amongst them.

OK… actually they just said they understood and switched the gathering to their parents’ home.

As this overly melodramatic retelling of a rather banal story should make clear, emergency maintenance during the holiday season may build itself up in your mind and create great paranoia, but it really is not a big deal. Yes, unfortunately, sometimes you have to tell people what they don’t want to hear in property management. That’s especially true with emergency maintenance. And it’s even a little bit more true with emergency maintenance during the holidays.

It’s all quite manageable, worry not.

Rental Property Maintenance Best Practices

First, let’s review the basics of good maintenance, When it comes to maintenance in general, we put together an easy-to-remember (albeit rather odd-sounding) acronym for the key things you need to do right called Quality PECS:

  • Quality – This should go without saying. Do the job right with quality materials that won’t break in a year.
  • P: Professionalism – Maintenance technicians (or yourself or contractors) should dress well and behave respectfully.
  • E: Expectations – Tenants should understand what you are and are not willing to do from the very beginning.
  • C: Communication – Stay in touch with your tenants throughout the maintenance process, even when there is only bad news or no news at all.
  • S: Speed – Fast is better. Try to get out to any maintenance request within three days of it having been made.

Related: The No. 1 Way to Keep Tenants Happy

You might think the most important point regarding emergency maintenance is the S for speed, but I would say it’s actually the E for Expectations. Tenants need to understand what you are and are not willing to do up front. Unfulfilled expectations are resentments waiting to happen—whether those expectations are reasonable or not.

What Qualifies as Emergency Maintenance?

When it comes to emergency maintenance, there are a few added things to consider. As I’ve noted before, the main thing is to have the right frame of mind:

“Regarding maintenance issues, the rule of thumb we like to use is that a tenant should not be able to expect faster service than if they were a homeowner. Even if it’s cold outside and the furnace goes out, it can probably wait until tomorrow. (Although, if that happens on Friday night, you should probably fix it on Saturday and not wait until Monday.) If there’s ice all over the roads and there is a snowstorm going on, you cannot get out there any quicker than if it was a homeowner who called an HVAC company.”

If it’s not a real emergency or it’s something that can wait until tomorrow, you have to be firm and say “no.” As far as real emergencies go, the vast majority have to do with 1) a water leak, 2) a sewage backup, or 3) no functional toilet. In other words, it’s generally water-related.

Of course, there are outliers. For instance, what about when a refrigerator goes out?

Usually, an appliance repair has to be done by a specialist and not someone you (or your property management company) will have on staff. If you know a vendor who will go out late at night, great. But this won’t be common. Otherwise, you will have to ask your tenant to wait until tomorrow. (Although again, you should go out on the weekend if it happens on Friday or Saturday.)

Perishable food will only last about four hours without refrigeration, but the tenant can put that food in a cooler and stuff it with ice. If possible, you could even provide one for them.

Emergency Property Maintenance During the Holidays

With regard to the holidays, stick to the same response you’d give any other day of the year. After all, your maintenance technician probably also has plans.

You should still take emergency calls, though (or your manager or maintenance tech should). Even though the tenant will be disappointed, it's still better for them to feel that way than to feel completely ignored. And remember, you should set the expectations as to what you can and can't do up front during the lease signing. This needs to include what is and what is not considered an emergency.

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Another reason you need to take these calls is that, unfortunately, some emergencies are so dire that you need to do something—even if it’s 11:59 pm on December 31st (which in the year 2020, may be an even bigger celebration than usual).

These emergencies are those water-related incidents noted above, particularly a leak or a sewage backup. If you have a maintenance tech or contractor willing to go out on New Year's Day, then go ahead and send them out. Or on the odd chance you are a skilled plumber who invests in real estate, you could do it yourself.

Luckily Snake ‘n’ Rooter and Roto-Rooter have branches in nearly every town. They’re not cheap, but they’re open 24/7, 365, and that includes every holiday in December. But keep in mind these emergency situations are very rare. So if this kind of thing does happen, it’s worth it to just pony up and have a 24/7 emergency service take care of it for you.

The Bottom Line

As I noted in my article on emergency maintenance, “Emergency maintenance does not happen often. For each unit, it will happen, on average, less than once a year. Just make a plan and follow through on that plan.”

But even still, the fear of middle-of-the-night emergency maintenance "is so paralyzing, in fact, I've heard stories where people eschewed becoming a landlord just to avoid it." This is completely unnecessary. And luckily, holiday emergency maintenance is even rarer.

That being said, it does occasionally happen. Have a plan for extreme issues, and stick to it. Don’t let the paranoia consume you. You will be fine.

Happy Holidays!

What other tips do you have for landlords and property managers surrounding emergency maintenance?

Share with a comment below.