Liability for checking the unit while owner is away

L.R. writes:

Dear Paul:

This is a difficult question for me.  I have been living in the same condominium complex for 12 years.  We have many snow birds.  Last year during the winter months I was looking after 9 suites while owners were away.  Some owners turn off all water supply in their unit – others do not.  Just recently one owner left for 5 months and forgot to unplug their coffee pot (it was not one that turns off automatically). 

Insurance policies vary regarding the number of times a suite should be checked when the owner is absent. I check every day.

If anything should happen while I am looking after a unit, i.e. pipes freeze, water damage etc. what is my responsibility?  I am becoming concerned that I might be held liable for any damage that could possibly occur.

Thanks very much for the great job your website is doing. 

Paul replies:

Dear L.R.:

Thank you for your question. Your concern about possible liability is well founded. I assume by your description that you are doing this for a small fee, or as a favour to friends and neighbours. As long as everything is in order when the snowbirds leave, and nothing goes wrong while they are away, everyone is happy in condo land. However, if something does go wrong, depending on the seriousness, I fear that you may be jeopardizing your friendships, and perish the thought, your bank account.

Be it a water leak, a frozen water pipe, dead plants, lost mail, fish tank malfunction, and more, your entrepreneurial spirit may be in for an unwanted experience. When it comes to money, financial loss in this this case, friendships may easily sour. Your snowbirds may have insurance, or they may not. Unless you have seen proof of their insurance and that you are qualified to understand the legal jargon, you may be in for a surprise. Insurance company rules governing home checks while the owner is away vary. Some may require daily visits, others every three days. What happens if you were supposed to visit daily and you become ill and cannot check for a few days, even weeks? Will the insurer cover you in the event of damage to the unit or will they hold you responsible? Will the unit owner want you to pay their deductible? If you are performing these checks as a business, it may bring about certain liabilities. Are your checks logged as to the date and time and any observations you have made?

If you continue providing this service, I would encourage you to speak with an insurance broker and a lawyer to determine your actual responsibility. This way, you will know what you are getting into.

There exist professional home-check companies that the snowbirds could utilize. Maybe, you could work with one of these companies in your city and even become one of their home checkers. You would have backup and could be covered by the home-check company’s liability insurance. The fees maybe slightly higher than what they are currently paying you, but let’s face it if they can afford to go away for the winter, they can probably afford a bit more for the peace of mind of knowing that their home is well taken care of.  Good luck!

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