The Florida Realtors Association asked construction specialists and attorneys about the questions we should all be asking about the condition of our living spaces and what kinds of updates they need as they deteriorate from heat, humidity, hurricanes and climate change.
What kinds of questions should condo owners, likely with little knowledge of building construction, be asking now?
Ask about the age of your building, when the last inspection was and what kinds of repair work are planned in the near future, said Boca Raton, Fla., attorney Peter Sachs, who is certified in condominium and planned development law. You will also want to know how much money is in the building’s reserve fund and if and when an extra financial assessment is coming, he said.
You have the right to inspect your building’s records, which would include finances and repair work. Florida law requires that condos maintain their official records for seven years.
Who’s at fault when there’s a serious structural problem in a building? Is it the architects, the builders, the engineers, the inspectors or city officials? Or all of the above?
The architect, builder and engineer are all potentially culpable, as is the condo board if they do not act to fix the problem.
The architect would be responsible if there is a serious design flaw, and the engineer if the calculations, supervision or drawings are deficient. The builder would be to blame if corners were cut on materials or if construction failed to comply with the building code. The builder may also be liable for the failings of the architect or engineer.
The board, too, has obligations to residents. “The board has a fiduciary duty to act in the best interests of the unit owners. If the board is negligent and fails to act, or unduly delays, it may be held liable,”.
How often should structural engineers inspect high-rise buildings?
Miami-Dade and Broward counties require inspections when a building turns 40, but there’s no similar mandate in the rest of the state. The boards that supervise the buildings should take the initiative and conduct a thorough inspection at least every 10 years, and more often is better, said Yaniv Levi, president of Coast-to-Coast General Contractors in Hollywood, Fla. “It would behoove the association to do it yearly or bi-yearly,” he said. And he recommends the building get a new coat of paint, which also serves to weatherproof it, every seven to 10 years.
How quickly should buildings fix leaks and other water intrusions?
Immediately, Levi said. “As soon as the leak is identified, they should find the source of the intrusion,” he said. “If you catch it early, it won’t develop into something major.”
How can I find out if my building was constructed under the highest safety codes?
If it was built in 2002 or later, you should have the best building codes or close to it. If your building was constructed before 2002, it likely does not meet the highest standards unless it was damaged by a storm and had to be upgraded.
After Hurricane Andrew in 1992 mowed down entire blocks of cheaply built houses, Florida adopted a statewide building code that has become a national model. When Hurricane Wilma struck Fort Lauderdale 13 years later, new downtown buildings, such as the 42-story Las Olas River House, held up well. Older buildings constructed before the building code sustained severe damage.
What should owners do if they believe their board is ignoring a safety issue?
You should ask to have the issue brought up at the next board meeting, said Hallandale Beach, Fla., attorney Larry Tolchinsky. “Get it on the record that the board is ignoring the issue,” he said. “Thereafter, file a lawsuit against the board.” Call the local building or code enforcement department to report your concern and put it in writing; if you can afford it, you may want to hire your own engineer.
It is imperative that condo owners exercise their rights and responsibilities. They should attend meetings, they should ask questions of their board, they should be prepared if reports have been issued. If you feel the board is not doing enough, you can ask for a special meeting to be called, board members to be removed, or go to court and seek an injunction to require the board to take certain actions.
If you believe a code violation isn’t being addressed, let your city or township know. It can issue citations to press for the work to get done.
Should condos have rainy-day accounts to pay for property improvements?
There’s often resistance from condo owners when a board of directors wants to add to the monthly maintenance fees, said West Palm Beach, Fla., attorney Michael Gelfand, who is certified in condominium, planned development and real estate law. Condo associations are required by law to budget for reserve accounts for repairs of significant components, such as painting/waterproofing, roofs and paving, but frequently owners vote down these budgets as well as expensive structural work.
These repairs are often expensive. In emails released by the town of Surfside, an engineer said Champlain Towers South, the collapsed building, needed to spend about $16 million to repair cracked columns and crumbling concrete.
Beyond the legally required reserve accounts, boards of directors take an assortment of approaches. Some have no reserves at all, while others have accounts dedicated to repairs needed every five to 10 years, said Mike Ryan, a Fort Lauderdale attorney and mayor of Sunrise.“ Some condos cater to people with fixed incomes. It’s difficult for them to suddenly get hit with an assessment,” Ryan said. “It’s up to the board how they want to handle this. It’s wise for them to put aside money. If you defer too long, it becomes too costly.” The best strategy for the condo board is often to take the monthly maintenance fees and set aside some of that money for a rainy day fund, he said. This will lessen the financial impact on individual owners when a sudden major repair is needed, and the board must ask each homeowner for money.
What if an owner can’t afford the assessment?
“It’s like a lifeboat,” Gelfand said. “If you can’t pull your weight, you’re off.” The association may foreclose on your unit. Otherwise, their accounts will run a deficit and they won’t be able to pay the bills. Sometimes the association will borrow money from a bank to pay for these large expenditures, Tolchinsky said. “For those unit owners that can’t afford to pay, the association will likely spread the payments over time,” he said. “Up to 10 years in some cases.”
In terms of safety, is it better to live on a high floor or a low floor?
“In my personal opinion there are risks in both cases,” Tolchinsky said. “Living on the ground floor can have flooding issues. Perhaps issues with crime. Higher floors take longer to escape from the building and they have wind issues.”
Is it going to be harder to find concrete repair firms now that everyone is thinking about these questions?
“Perhaps, but my belief is the collapse was more complicated than just issues related to concrete repair,” Tolchinsky said. “Certainly, the cost of having a firm perform these repairs is going to skyrocket. This is based on the level of data and certifications that will likely be needed to be provided to boards and governmental agencies to perform this work. Also, the high demand for building materials and the lack of skilled workers given the tight labor market will make it harder to find concrete repair firms.”
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