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Florida Building Collapse Highlights Serious Challenges Facing Condo Boards

Category: Active adult communities

Note: We are once again grateful to Joe West of the Community Associations Network, LLC, for helping us research this topic.

July 10, 2021 — The collapse of Champlain Towers South near Miami, built in 1981, has made owners and buyers nervous. The dream of living near the ocean has been interrupted by the fear that some buildings might not be safe, and that owners’ investments could be in danger. It also highlights the problems that condo, community, and home owners associations (HOAs) face all around the country. Some 70% of homes and condos in Miami were built prior to 1970 – more than 50 years ago. Since then they have been exposed to all kinds of problems like those at Surfside – salt air and salt water incursions, rising water tables, aging concrete, and older building codes. The problems are worse along the coasts, but, like us baby boomers, even buildings far inland are not exempt from the vicissitudes of age. And who are the people who are going to have to deal with these expensive, highly technical problems – you and your condo board!

The causes of the Surfside collapse and the actions of its condo board members have been a staple of discussion in the news. The problems with the building were well known for a long time. After great struggles and almost a complete turnover of its board members, a $15 million plan was approved to correct water incursion and corrosion issues in the 167 unit building, although work had not started on it. Board members and residents fought over the expensive plan, which was going to represent a hardship for many owners. Some experts believe even those repairs might have too late, and still not have prevented the building’s collapse.

Public domain photo from Miami Dade Fire and Rescue

Issues Affect Everyone: Condo Board Members, Residents, and Buyers

The Surfside catastrophe highlights in bold many issues for the people who live in condos and community associations. We will try to outline them below, along with some suggestions for board members, residents, and potential buyers. At the end we have some excellent references that provide additional background and courses of action, courtesy of Joe West of the Community Association Network.

spalling and corrosion

Buildings and infrastructure age, and they need to be maintained. Buildings near the sea and salt water are especially vulnerable. It is inevitable that concrete cracks and steel corrodes. While multi-story buildings are at greater risk of collapse, any building can face serious structural issues over time. Not to mention the elevators, roofs, and roads that wear out and need to be replaced.

Reserves are essential. Florida tends to have more developed condo laws than any other state, but many experts believe even those are not sufficient. FL Statute 718.112(f) [2] requires condominium associations to maintain reserves for any expenditure which is expected to exceed $10,000; and those include roof replacement, painting, and pavement resurfacing. A reserve study must be conducted every 3 years. As a board member, owner, or prospective buyer, you need to know how well your association’s reserves are funded, and how accurate and up to date those reserves are calculated. There were recent condo sales at big prices in the Champlain Towers – it makes one wonder if those buyers realized that multi-million dollar repairs not covered by reserves were in the offing, amounting to almost $90,000 per unit.

Many associations severely underfund their reserves. Associations can waive funding these reserves and, sadly, many do. One study of some associations found an average of $700,000 in reserves where $10 million should have been put away for future repairs. Boards are sometimes unwilling to vote to keep reserves fully funded, knowing that owners will refuse to support them. When reserves are not adequate and major items need to be repaired or replaced, assessments, never popular, are required to make up the gap.

Regular building inspections by experts are a must. Miami Dade County is one of the few places in the country that requires buildings over 40 years old to be re-certified. Elsewhere in Florida there are probably thousands of buildings of at least that age that have not been inspected in years, so their condo boards and owners have no idea what condition they are in. The Surfside collapse makes it painfully clear that regular inspections in high rise buildings are a necessity, but they are also a must even in associations with much simpler structures. Until an expert has studied them, no one really knows what hazards might lay in wait.

“Unless your volunteer board is loaded with building engineers, with a lot of experience in hi-rise construction, you will need regular professional inspections.  More importantly, you need to listen and act on the reports. If assessment increases are called for , find a way to make it work, and find a backup emergency source of funds, such as a bank loan, in case there is an unexpected catastrophe like we just saw. You can’t always count on the insurance policy for major issues.”

Joe West, Community Associations Network, LLC

Communication by the board with owners is key. The Champlain Towers condo board apparently faced strong opposition from owners over the cost and necessity of making those planned $15 million repairs. How a board goes about communicating the need for correcting problems has a huge bearing on the outcome. Joe West highlights the challenge: “Convincing owners of the need to raise assessments to cover reserves or a reserve underfunding, is tough, but has to be done. Deferring maintenance can also have a negative effect on the property’s value”.

Homeowners and prospective buyers need to understand reserves and the conditions of the property. Champlain Towers collapsed because the board and owners were frozen – timely action was not taken. The board of your condominium or home qwners association is ultimately responsible for keeping the property viable for the long haul. But as an owner, you have a responsibility to be involved, understand the issues, and support the board when difficult decisions have to be made. Prospective buyers have to know the issues that the association faces, how well the reserves are funded, and how responsible the board is in keeping up the property.

The scope of the problem.

FL has 50,000 community associations and homeowners associations. Their boards are in the spotlight now, like they have never been before. Part of the problem is that board members are rarely construction experts, they are just volunteers from all walks of life. Unseen problems in their communities are everywhere, unfortunately. We know of a concrete Florida condo building near the ocean that everyone assumed was a fortress, even after the Surfside collapse. Then an architect overseeing the renovation of a ground floor unit happened to visit a crawl space that few people knew even existed. Surprise: there was spalling of concrete, rusted rebar, and other problems. The condo board has had to rush to hire a structural engineer to inspect. Because so much of the building supports are underground, tunnelling or digging will have to be done to complete the inspection. The point being: don’t be complacent. Until your property has been inspected by qualified experts, no one has any idea what problems lurk.

Here is a final thought from Joe West:

“A lot of state laws and association documents are not very specific when it comes to reserve studies and funding.  That doesn’t mean board’s can ignore their responsibility for maintaining the common areas both now and in the future.  Deferring maintenance to save money, doesn’t.  It just makes the costs larger a little bit later.” Also from Joe West on this topic: “What You Need to Know about Home Owners Associations“.

For further reading:

Comments: What shape do you think your building or community is in? Have you had assessments or are you looking at some in the future? Has there been a recent inspection by a competent firm or engineer? Has the Champlain Tower collapse changed your mind about the importance of your condo or community association board, and the decisions they make? Please share your thoughts in the Comments section below.

Posted by Admin on July 9th, 2021

3 Comments »

  1. I think this article highlights the difficult and important job that members of condo boards and HOAs have. Lots of people like to bash their boards, but these are usually the same people that say they won’t serve on them because they are “too busy”. Finding and electing qualified board members and participating in board discussions of the issues is critical. As we saw in the Surfside building collapse, it appears that owners were not willing to support difficult decisions and thus paralysis set in. If you live in an HOA and you have some board experience of management experience, consider running for the board next year.

    by Tony — July 16, 2021

  2. There is a fascinating short (4 minute) radio segment on NPR that everyone who either lives in a homeowners association or is thinking about buying into should listen to. It features an interview with
    Robert Nordlund, founder and CEO of Association Reserves, about what what due diligence condo owners should be conducting in their communities. The steps are easy, such as looking at the last few Board meetings to see what issues are being discussed and how they are being resolved, and what the reserves look like. If there is a history of special assessments, that is clear evidence that the Board is not doing its job. Check it out!
    https://www.npr.org/2021/07/19/1016940192/why-steady-low-condo-fees-should-raise-a-flag-and-other-tips-for-owners-and-buye

    by John Brady — July 19, 2021

  3. There is an interesting article in the NYTimes today by a Florida attorney who specializes in condominium law, “I Know All About Condo Living. Let’s Fix It.” The points he make are about how condo boards have important responsibilities, built in conflicts, and an often unreceptive audience. He thinks professionals should be more involved in insuring that important decisions about reserves and building maintenance are made. He makes the analogy that having board members make key decisions is like the passengers on an airliner choose the crew for the flight from among the passengers. Worth a read for anyone who lives in a condo or is thinking about it.

    by John Brady — July 31, 2021

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