Is your Boston condo complex a ticking time bomb? Basement leaks and cracks. Faulty mechanical and electrical systems. Porous roofs and crumbling facades. As a Boston downtown real estate broker will tell you they have probably have seen it
The tragic collapse of a condo tower in Surfside, Florida, last month has drawn attention to boards’ decision-making and government oversight of building conditions.
When pricey repairs are recommended by an architect or engineer, the board has three options: dip into the building’s reserve fund, replenished by monthly charges paid by unit owners; take out a loan, or levy an assessment on all owners in the building. Generally, the board recommends action and asks a majority of residents to approve it.
Safety is not the only factor considered. Residents’ ability and willingness to pay for repairs play a big role in determining which option, if any, boards opt to do. Boards face pressure to keep costs down, according to lawyers who work with them, and that often clashes with their responsibility to maintain the building.
Downtown Boston does require a variety of inspections, depending on the building type. such as the Facade Inspection Safety Program, mandates that buildings over six stories undergo a facade inspection every five years. Certain building systems, such as elevators, boilers, and gas piping, have their own inspection schedules. The Department of Buildings will conduct inspections in response to complaints from the public. And a pending City Council bill would require parking structures to undergo a structural assessment every six years.
But there is no mandatory, structural integrity inspection for buildings.
As horrified residents and developers of high-rise buildings around the world absorbed the stream of news about the Surfside disaster, some have been moved to take action.
In South Florida, residents were evacuated from three older buildings after engineers found them unsafe. In Hong Kong, a developer announced last week that it would demolish and rebuild two residential towers at a best-selling complex, citing construction defects.
In downtown Boston, some boards are revisiting forgotten reports.
Generally, the wealthier the residents and the more well-funded a building is, the better it is maintained. But there are exceptions.
The industry, on the other hand, has many ideas about how to compel condos and co-ops to better care for their property. Proposals range from mandating structural inspections to requiring a certain amount of cash to be kept in reserve funds.
Let’s face there are some downtown Boston condo buildings that could be a ticking time bomb
Updated: What should you do before buying into a condo building?
Review several years’ worth of condominium or co-op board and annual meeting minutes.
Review minutes which could potentially include notes on board discussions about special assessments and offer clues to potential problems in the unit you’re buying and in the building itself.
Scrutinize the financial statements of the association.
The most important thing to look at is how much money has been set aside in reserves for repairs of major components of the building, If the reserves aren’t sufficient, owners could be hit with a special assessment
Despite needing about $15 million in repairs to the building, the Champlain Towers South condo association had $700,000 in reserves, according to an April letter sent by the association president to residents, as reported by The Wall Street Journal.
Review structural inspection reports, if available.
Mr. Grant said that some counties in Florida require structural inspections to be conducted as part of a 40-year recertification requirement for condominiums, and those reports would be held by the condo association. Buyers should consider making it a condition of the purchase contract that they be allowed to review such reports before purchase.
Mr. Grant said that in Florida, when control over a condominium is transferred from the developer to unit owners, the newly elected condo board will often have an engineer perform an inspection to determine whether there are any construction defects for which the association wants to hold the developer responsible. However, if a condominium isn’t new but isn’t near its 40-year recertification, there may be no recent structural reports for a buyer to review. In this case, speak with current residents of the building to learn about any issues that owners have discussed.
Review public records.
Start with a Google search to see if there are any media reports of problems with the building. In many jurisdictions, court records are available online, so you can check to see if any construction-defect litigation is pending by searching for lawsuits commenced by the condominium association. Some cities maintain online databases that allow buyers to check for things such as building-code violations, enforcement actions and any open alteration applications for the building.
Review the association’s insurance.
Buyers can learn what type of insurance they’ll need by reviewing the association bylaws. “Some associations require that the unit owner insure everything from the sheetrock in,” said Spencer Houldin, president of Ericson Insurance Services in Washington, Conn. “Other associations will cover anything there when the building was built, so any improvements after that are the owner’s responsibility.”
Buyers or their insurance agent should also check the building’s coverage to make sure the policy limits are sufficient to rebuild. “The last thing you’d want is for a condominium worth $6 million to only be covered for $4 million, and then everyone gets assessed,” Mr. Houldin said.
Make sure you also have sufficient liability coverage and alternative-living coverage, which pays for living expenses if you have to abandon your home due to a covered loss. Even a total casualty loss doesn’t relieve a unit owner of the obligation to make mortgage payments.