Editor’s note: This article is one of a series written based on public information requested from the City of Bellingham Planning and Development Department for data covering Bellingham rental inspections between June 13, 2016, when the city began the inspections, and Feb. 9.
The data is not inclusive of all inspections as many landlords opt to use private inspectors who are not required to file detailed reports with the city. Links to additional stories can be found at the end of each article.
The five most common causes of failure found during the first eight months of rental inspections in Bellingham were easily-fixed problems. Causes included smoke and carbon monoxide alarms, exposed electrical wiring, plumbing seals and windows that don’t meet standards for egress, meaning a tenant couldn’t climb out of them in case of emergency.
Missing or nonfunctional smoke and carbon monoxide detectors were listed in approximately 47 percent of initial failures.
“Smoke detectors are vital for early detection,” Bellingham Fire Marshal Ron Richard said. “They help ensure that people get up and out of a building that may be on fire.”
Richard stressed the importance of carbon monoxide detectors, noting that the odorless, colorless gas is given off by incomplete combustion from furnaces, water heaters, gas stoves or similar appliances. Symptoms of poisoning first manifest as lethargy or headaches and can result in death.
David Willet, a private rental inspector, said when the battery level in smoke or carbon monoxide detectors gets low, many tenants remove the batteries rather than replace them, to silence the warning chirping. He added that this can sometimes cause or contribute to an inspection failure and that it is the responsibility of the landlord to ensure alarms are in working condition.
Exposed or unprotected wiring was the second most common cause of failure, appearing in approximately 21 percent of first-time failures. “Exposed wiring is never a good thing,” Willet said. “It can cause a fire.”
Greg Gottier, a former property manager and current state-licensed home inspector said in his experience, most tenants do not fully examine the condition of rental units and overlook potential safety hazards.
Other potential safety hazards include missing hand and guard rails, which city inspection data mentioned in 106 first-time failures. The inspection checklist dictates that handrails must be present and in good repair on any staircase more than three stairs high, and guardrails on any platform elevated 30 inches or more above grade or surrounding surfaces.
“Smoke detectors are vital for early detection. They help ensure that people get up and out of a building that may be on fire.”
Bellingham Fire Marshal Ron Richard
The city’s rental inspection checklist acknowledges that older buildings were constructed under different building codes than are in place today, and only corrects discrepancies between these codes when they pose a threat to safety. Because of this, an important part of an inspection is “making sure that stairways are safe and that decks are safe,” home inspector Trey Campbell said.
Older building codes can also become an issue as they relate to emergency egress, or escape windows. Every bedroom or room being used as a bedroom in a building four stories tall or less must have at least one emergency egress window or door of a specific size as determined by building and fire codes when the building was constructed. About 14 percent of initial inspection failures included this type of violation, which is more common when spaces not intended to be bedrooms are converted for that use.
Senior Ariel Rivera, who rents in the Sehome neighborhood, said that without enforced rental standards “a landlord gets to determine the quality of a home.”
Rivera said while she understands the difficulties faced by the landlords in maintaining their units, “I think it’s really important for landlords to be reasonably receptive to the needs of their tenants.”
Of those rental units that failed initial inspection, 75 also failed the free follow-up inspection, requiring a $50 fee and a second follow-up inspection. Fourteen of those failed and had to pay another $50 fee for a final inspection, in which only one unit failed, according to city data.
Property owners also have the option to hire a city-certified private inspector and those results are not included in the city data.
Header image: A hole in the ceiling at 1310 Grant St. where repairs are being done to a leaking roof. According to tenants, the property management company did not complete repairs until the unit was inspected by the city. // Photo courtesy of Erasmus Baxter and Alexis Edgar
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