Thursday, March 13, 2014

What California Law Requires Property Managers to Know About Smoke Detectors and Smoke Alarms

If you manage properties or rental units for a fee, or you are an individual who rents properties or rental units to people/tenants for a rental fee or leasing fee you should pay attention to what the law requires when it comes to smoke detectors or smoke alarms.  As a landlord you are responsible to know the law; ignorance is no defense to a wrongful death lawsuit or serious fire causing major property damage.  Smoke alarms and smoke detectors are critical residential components which must be handled with care and diligence as they are life-saving and property-saving devices which must not be taken lightly.  The undertaking of managing properties is wrought with legal pitfalls and unknown obstacles, however understanding the law is paramount to being a fiduciary for your client, or being on the right side of the law if something goes wrong.  A new 2014 law in California implements some standards which all property managers and property owners who rent to individuals must be aware of and abide by.

New Law for Life-Saving and Property-Saving Devices
As of January 1, 2014 all smoke detectors installed in residential units in California must be on the State Fire Marshall list of approved  and listed devices and are required to; 1) display date of manufacture on device; 2) provide place on device where date of installation can be written; 3) incorporate a hush button feature; 4) incorporate an end-of-life feature that provides notice that device requires replacement; and 5) maintains a non-replaceable, non-removable battery capable of powering smoke alarm no less than ten (10) years – if the device is battery operated.

New Obligations for Rental Property Managers and Rental Owners
Prior existing law required multi-family rental property owners to install, test, and maintain smoke detectors, while single-family unit owners were under no obligation to do so.  As of January 1, 2014 all residential unit owners who rent to tenants for a fee are required to install, test, and maintain listed and approved smoke detectors.  For apartment buildings with two or more units landlords are even required to maintain smoke detectors in vacant units.

Owners, property managers and landlords are allowed access to tenant units to inspect, test, repair and maintain smoke detectors provided they give reasonable written notice to the tenants.  Reasonable notice is considered to be written notice within 24-hours, Monday through Friday, or whatever can be arranged with the tenant as not to disrupt the tenant’s quiet use and enjoyment.  Importantly for property managers and sole property owners who rent a new tenancy requires an inspection and confirmation of an operable, code complying device, in all of the required locations within a rental unit.

Penalties for Non-Compliance Can be Expensive
When building permits for repairs or remodeling are obtained a final inspection of the construction will not be approved until code complying smoke detectors are installed and tested by the building inspector in all of the required locations within a rental unit.  If this inspection fails a delay in obtaining a final building permit approval could be a few days (depending on the building department scheduling) which could result in rental income losses.

Importantly property managers, landlords or owners who fail to comply with the new law can be fined $200 for the first and each subsequent offense.

Compliance with the Law is the Best Practice
The new law creates an opportunity for property managers, landlords, or owners to inspect their units for compliance and maintenance during a period of time when it was not otherwise required.  The life-saving device inspection should be done periodically as this is an important component of the rental unit habitability, rental unit life-safety and a prudent business practice.  An inspection of carbon monoxide detectors should be performed at the same time.