By Justin Ford, On the Water in Maine Vacation Rentals — As vacation managers across the country know, states and towns have been taking a closer look at vacation rental regulations over the past couple of years. It’s in all the newspapers that they are. One of the areas that regulators keep looking at is safety in vacation rentals homes – even though many regulators aren’t even aware of the problems. The problem is that nationwide, there are no centralized guidelines for vacation managers to follow. Many vacation managers are forced to piece together laws and regulations from town ordinances, state laws and even federal guidelines on their own. This is something that vacation managers need to get out ahead of – and fast. Vacation Managers need to be the experts on home safety – they need to set the standard.
Other sectors of the travel industry have had their disasters over the past century. In 1912, the Titanic set sail from Liverpool and hit an iceberg. Everyone knows that over 1,500 people died. What some people don’t know is that as a result of that tragedy, in 1914, SOLAS (The International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea) was created. Today, everyone sees lifeboats for all the passengers when they cruise because of SOLAS.
The fire on Air Canada Flight 797 in 1983 lead to smoke detectors being installed in all airplane lavatories. Today, every time you listen through the safety speech on a plane, you hear them mention that tampering with smoke detectors in the airplane lavatory is a federal crime – again, all a result of that one incident in 1983.
So has the vacation rental industry had its big disastrous moment?
Some could say so. While more people have died in homes than on all ships and planes combined – one particular incident in Colorado in 2008 has had the greatest effect on safety in vacation rentals. Around Thanksgiving in that year, the Lofgren family, Parker 39, Caroline 42, Owen 10 and Sophie 8, checked into a $8.9 MM, recently built vacation rental property in Aspen, Colorado to celebrate Thanksgiving. When their friends arrived to join them, they discovered all four were dead. A team of four gas and heating technicians determined that a malfunction of the hot water and snowmelt system for the driveway caused extreme levels of carbon monoxide in the home. There was not one carbon monoxide detector in the vacation property, despite that it was recently built and had several carbon monoxide producing appliances in it. Had there been even one carbon monoxide detector in the property it is possible the Lofgren’s would have been alerted to the issue and awoken to evacuate the home.
What’s interesting in this case is that despite that contractors were obviously sued for improperly installing the heating system that resulted – the lawsuits didn’t make any mention of the homeowners or the rental agency responsible for the home. State law in Colorado at the time didn’t require CO detectors to be located in residential homes in that state. That all changed on July 1, 2009 when the “Lofgren and Johnson Families Carbon Monoxide Safety Act” when into effect. Other states around the country quickly followed. It is now law in almost all 50 states, similar to Colorado, that “if it is your personal residence or if it is used as a rental, it must have an operational carbon monoxide detector.”
So did the Lofgren incident change the vacation rental industry for the better? Possibly. However, there have still been cases of CO poisoning and deaths in vacation rentals since the Lofgren incident. So why aren’t more vacation rentals better equipped with CO detectors? Unfortunately, although most states have enacted laws, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, many don’t carry penalties and most states don’t have any inspection programs in place to enforce that the laws are being adhered to.
Skip forward a few years to April 2014. A family of 22 people checked in to a vacation rental cabin in Seviler County, Tennessee. This 5-bedroom, 3-story home was recently built, but only had one entry/exit point other than windows. Late at night, when alerted to a fire by smoke detectors going off, many of the family members started to evacuate the house. Unable to get to the front door because of all the smoke, many of the vacationers jumped out windows. A 56-year-old grandfather ended up dying of blood loss after lacerations from jumping through a window on the 2nd floor. State forensic anthropologists were called in to search the rubble of the home for 5-year-old Tyveon. His body was never found, and to this day, his family holds out search through a Facebook page that maybe he somehow made it out alive.
While no regulations or laws have been enacted to address what happened at the Seviler County fire, there are many lessons that vacation managers can take away from this tragic event. First, it can come as no surprise that the rental agency that rented this home to the family was not only sued, it is now completely out of business. They closed without notice and left behind devastating financial issues for the property owners and renters that were already working with them. Although the home was protected by smoke detectors and they did work to alert the renters of the fire – the real questions that came into play were why were 22 people sleeping in a 5-bedroom home and why was there only one exit out of the home?
Setting occupancy limits for vacation rentals varies inconsistently around the country, in states and even in towns. Some vacation managers and vacation homeowners have limited occupancy by the number of beds, bedrooms or even by what the septic system rating is on the dwelling. Its rare, however, that vacation managers take a serious look at a rental home and ask, how many people can safely stay in this home? Would it be easy for people to get out of the home in the event of a fire? Are there enough exits for people to escape the home quickly? As the vacation rental industry grows, vacation managers need to take a closer look at how occupancy is evaluated for a property and ensure they set strict limits that their renters must follow.
Several incidents at vacation rentals in North Carolina and other parts of the country this past year have shown that some vacation managers are recognizing the need to be more proactive when it comes to safety. After a 24×12 deck with over 25 people on it collapsed last 4th of July in Emerald Isle, NC at a vacation rental, seven area vacation managers came together to start a mandatory deck inspection program. While deck inspections are important – several of the collapses bring up the same issue as the Seveiler County fire – what were over 25 people doing on a residential deck not made for it?
Other areas of the vacation rental industry can be scrutinized for safety and well being of renters:
Hammocks – Thousands of vacationers are injured each year in hammocks, either by falling out of them, the hammock breaking or hooks falling out of trees or hammocks stands.
Inexpensive Deck Chairs – Resin plastic chairs, commonly used in many vacation homes because of their inexpensive cost, constantly break at rental homes leading to many injuries, some requiring hospitalization.
Grill Fires – Each year over 6,500 grill fires result in $27 MM in property losses, many to vacation rental homeowners.
Kitchen knives – Not many people know a sharp kitchen knife is sharper than a dull one. Most accidents in the kitchen are a result of a knife, especially a dull one. The vacation rental industry is known for providing inexpensive and often dull knives in rental homes.
Burns – Over 3,800 injuries and 34 deaths occur in U.S. homes each year due to scalding from excessively hot tap water. In most vacation rental homes, any renter with a screwdriver and internet access can quickly adjust a hot water heater to the temperature desired. But what if it isn’t lowered back down for the following renters (who have a small child) when they arrive?
Amenity Items – Vacation renters crash on poorly maintained bikes provided by vacation homeowners at rentals across the country each summer. In the state of Florida, drowning is the leading cause of death in children under the age of four. Many of the children who drown in Florida vacation home pools are the children and grandchildren of tourists on vacation. People go on vacation to relax; they let their guard down. They become preoccupied with socializing with one another, or just enjoying much needed down time. Children, exuberant with vacation excitement and sometimes unaccustomed to beaches and pools, make bad choices. They wind up getting in over their heads – literally.
There is an endless supply of safety issues to take into account when renting out vacation homes — the list goes on and on. What about stair safety? According to the AARP, falls with elderly people is one of the number one injuries. How do they fall? Absence of handrails account for a large percentage of falls on stairs that result in injuries. Unexpected locations of stairs leads to many falls. For example, stairs of just one or two steps in a hallway or doorway can be especially hazardous.
When a person wants to get certified to direct and flag traffic, they go to classes put on by OSHA to get certified. In the vacation rental industry, the assumption has always been that because someone grew up in and now probably still lives in a house – that they are experts on safety in homes and they don’t need additional education. As the vacation rental industry grows bigger and hotels, which are heavily regulated to provide safe lodging options, vacation managers are going to need to put together a plan to establish safety standards in the industry. While that is a monumental challenge, what is going to be even more challenging is getting the rental by owner, of which more properties are offered by RBOs than VMs, to also stick to strict safety guidelines.
Take this situation I encountered in Maine recently. I was contacted by a woman that has been offering a 16-bedroom, 22-room home for rent on VRBO on her own for the past eight years. As many RBOs do, this woman had tired of cleaning the home and fielding inquiries all winter and now was seeking professional help. When I walked into the home to consider adding it to our rental pool, the first thing I noticed were several porches that didn’t have railings up to code. As I walked through the house and didn’t see smoke or CO detectors in any bedrooms, the kitchen, halls – anywhere in the home, I tried to imagine how anyone could possibly find their way out of this home in the dark. If the house were to be filled with smoke – especially when renters would be waking to fire, not a smoke detector, and have little time to escape – how would they get out? By the time I finished the tour of the home – I was terrified to learn that vacationers had been renting this home for the past eight years with none of these safety items in place. When I asked the woman why there were no smoke detectors in the home, she replied, “actually I think there is one, but it kept beeping so we removed it.” Its these types of homeowners in our industry that are going to ruin it for all of us and cause so many safety mandates to come into our industry that no one will be able to afford to rent out their homes anymore. That is where change is needed.
What can vacation managers do to address safety in our industry? First, recognize that safety is the most important aspect of renting out a vacation home. It is more important than the advertised rate, the marketing plan, the furnishings, all of it. Vacation managers need to understand that the “buck stops with them.” When a vacationing family arrives in a vacation home at 9pm on Saturday night, after traveling all day with kids screaming in the car, after airline delays, after getting groceries, after unpacking the car – they are doing one critical thing that not enough vacation managers take the weight for – these vacationers are completely trusting the vacation manager and homeowner. When they climb into bed exhausted, ready to begin their vacation, they trust the smoke detectors are all the best that money can buy and have fresh batteries in them, that the railing down the stairs to the bathroom isn’t loose and ready to fall off the wall, that there is a CO detector near the boiler in the basement that will alert them to an issue, that the pool gate is locked so that their early bird riser 3-year-old son can’t sneak out into the pool before them in the morning…the list goes on and on.
Everyone at your rental agency needs to be an expert on vacation rental safety. Your reservationists should be helping you by promoting that your vacation homes are safe. Yes, like Volvo has done for decades – promoting safety in your product is good for business.
When visiting homes to decide if they make the cut to be in your rental pool, managers and agents should be evaluating homes for safety as well. Are there smoke detectors in each living space as required by law? Is that dead branch over the deck a hazard that may result in someone getting hurt? Is the uneven walkway up to the front door a tripping hazard? Is the deck attached to the property attached by nails instead of screws (a big no-no)?
One of the best ways for managers to get familiar with what they are looking for is to require that all new rental properties they list be inspected by a professional building inspector prior to entering the rental pool. Be sure to have a member of your staff join the inspectors on the property tour to not only gain knowledge of items to look for, but to be able to talk to property owners with confidence about safety items that need to be addressed.
Housekeepers are one of the most important staff members when it comes to addressing safety. Your cleaning staff should be encouraged to speak up when they see something that doesn’t look right. Managers need to take action and show the housekeeping staff that their concerns are important – so they continue to speak up. Cleaners should be carrying batteries to replace missing ones in smoke and CO detectors. Renters are notorious for taking batteries out of detectors when they burn food or set them off by letting too much hot steam out of unventilated bathrooms. Every smoke detector in every rental property should be tested after each rental by the cleaning staff. Incent your housekeeping staff to do that.
Property owners themselves need to be a part of any safety program you put in place at your agency. Homeowners are going to rely on the agency to guide them in the right direction. Many don’t know what vacation managers should know – that smoke detectors older than ten years since manufacturer date should be replaced (they don’t make off-white smoke detectors – when they age to a color other than white – replace them). They don’t know that CO detectors wear out after five to seven years. Many homeowners like to place smoke detectors in an aesthetically pleasing location in their vacation homes rather than where they should go to operate properly. The vacation manager needs to be there to guide them.
Vacation Managers need to reach out to the RBOs in their communities and ensure they are aware of safety protocols. Every incident in every vacation home affects everyone in the industry. Just like the CO deaths of the Lofgren family in Colorado lead to laws in other states – the next disaster in a vacation rental say, in California, is just as sure to effect change in Georgia.
Every industry has its disasters to learn from. The most important thing that the vacation rental industry needs to do now is come together and learn from past mistakes and find a way forward to promote its industry as a safe industry. Vacation rental agencies can help this by supporting a working culture where safety is a top priority. By creating industry safety standards that exceed any standards that government regulations will create, vacation managers will stay one step ahead of the curve. In the end, all will benefit.
Justin Ford is the owner of On the Water in Maine vacation rentals in Maine. He has a background in safety that goes back to a four-year tour in the US Coast Guard where he participated in fishing vessel safety enforcement in Alaska. Later, he joined his local fire department where he is the training officer. Justin is also the Vice President of the Vacation Rental Professionals of Maine and presents regularly on safety for the VRMA. Justin also produces a Facebook community page on Vacation Rental Safety at facebook.com.