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  • Writer's pictureRoland Abbott & DeZoort

How To Protect Vacant Structures

When a structure sits vacant, there are many unknowns. How long might it remain empty? What exposures are in play? What are the owner’s responsibilities? A structure left vacant is never a desirable situation; however, sometimes it simply can’t be avoided. Properties may experience temporary vacancies due to the buying and selling process, tenant turnover, foreclosure, or construction delays during demolition or remodeling.

Vacancies may be prolonged as a direct impact of the economy, legal hurdles with trusts or wills and, as we have seen in recent years, pandemic restrictions resulting in people working from home. Whatever the reason, implementing some basic controls can curb negative and expensive consequences.

Your clients may look to you for guidance should they find themselves in a vacant building. Whether the vacancy is for a couple of days or several months, here are some controls that you can recommend to minimize leading loss exposures.

Trespassing - Vacant facilities can attract the curiosity of children and adults alike, and they are magnets for criminal activity. Violence, drug activity, squatting and more can lead to injuries to trespassers, while theft, arson or vandalism can lead to potential damage. Here are 5 ways your client can be proactive.

  1. Secure the property, making sure exterior door and window openings are closed and locked.

  2. Add or use existing chain-link fencing with locking gates around the property perimeter when feasible.

  3. Maintain an active central station alarm with motion sensors, door and window contact sensors and glass breakage sensors.

  4. Ask your local responding police department to do regular checks to ensure security of the property.

  5. Visit the property on a regular basis to check the integrity and functionality of the alarm system setup, CCTV surveillance cameras and motion lighting. Check for security breaches and damage to fencing, locked doors and windows. If you are unable to check on the property regularly, hire someone to do so.

Fire - More than 31,000 fires occur each year in vacant facilities – resulting in nearly $642 million in property losses annually – according to the National Fire Protection Association. Here’s how your client can keep this from happening.

  1. Keep your fire sprinkler system adequately maintained and operational. Have your sprinkler contractor service your system annually.

  2. Maintain an active central station alarm system with hardwired smoke sensors. If you have a fire sprinkler system, monitor its water flow, valve tamper and facility temperature.

  3. Keep the facility perimeter area cleaned up and free of combustible materials such as trash, brush, wood and pallets. A good rule of thumb is to maintain a 25-foot clear space around the perimeter of the structure.

  4. Do not leave nonessential appliances and lighting on for days unattended.

  5. Invite your local fire department to tour the facility, making sure they are aware of the vacancy, and ensure they have access into the facility for emergency response.

Water - Vacant buildings and uncontrolled water do not mix. When pipes freeze, it can lead to damage from uncontrolled running water; ice dams causing roof damage; water infiltration resulting from undetected roof leaks; and undetected wind damage to the structure. Remind your clients to:

  1. Visit the property regularly to view facility conditions, making sure to visually inspect the roof from the exterior and the ceiling from inside for signs of water infiltration.

  2. Follow best practices in areas subject to freezing: maintain facility temperature to 55 degrees Fahrenheit, and use the services of a professional plumber to properly winterize the plumbing system. Maintaining heat is critical to ensuring that a fire sprinkler system’s pipes will not freeze, and the system will function as designed.


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