Condominium Ownership and Maintenance

One of the major attractions to condominium ownership is a desire for fewer maintenance and repair responsibilities. This may be an elusive goal. While the ownership of some larger, more expensive and/or well managed condominium complexes may require few maintenance responsibilities, the opposite can be true in smaller, less expensive and/or older complexes. But problems with condos can be found in all types of complexes.

Condominium ownership may also be plagued by factors related to the building's design especially issues which are unique to or common in multi-family structures. Other woes may be related to the very nature of condominium ownership, that is multi-party joint ownership.

Condominium purchase decisions require more information than most types of real estate purchases. Yet the information available to the buyer is usually incomplete, misleading and inadequate.

Please read on.

George

Index

  • In my work I have discovered specific conditions which may complicate condominium ownership. The ten potential plagues of condominium ownership are as follows:

    1. The low priced and/or poorly constructed building with poor quality design, materials and workmanship which will require major repairs. A disproportionate number of these building have EIFS, stucco, wood composite and vinyl siding.

    See Q&A: Building Envelope Defects, and the report of the Comm. of Inquiry Into the Quality of Condominium Construction in BC.

    A Shrink Wrapped Condo

    A condo with exterior envelope failure. Repair costs in such cases are often in the 10's of thousands of dollars per unit.

  • The medium priced building with 'special features' which are unlikely to work unless done to the best and most expensive standards, i.e. tile shower walls and waterproof decks. See Topics: Decks, and Topics: Tub and Shower Walls.
  • The well meaning, busy condominium association members who want someone else to take care of the routine and extraordinary maintenance issues. They can't or do not want to afford a very good and more expensive maintenance and management company.
  • The low condo fees which only cover the regular monthly expenses and preclude building an "adequate" reserve fund which will one day be needed to pay for larger repairs and maintenance projects such as roofs, decks and siding. (see item #1 above)
  • The condo owner who can't afford the special assessments and assumes that the low condo fees will cover all maintenance costs.
  • The embattled condominium owners' association with one faction wanting blue vinyl siding, another wanting clear cedar, and the rest who don't participate in the meetings or are just sick and tired of the war.
  • The music lover, exercise machine user or daytime sleeper whose activities and needs upset other owners.
  • The common area hog who washes cars 4 times a week, invites rowdy friends to use the condo pool and disregards parking assignments.
  • The main floor unit owner who does not want to pay for roof repair (or basement water problems) because, "the problem does not impact my unit. And, by the way, I never use the pool anyway, so why should I have to pay for the pool maintenance?"
  • The absentee landlord whose condo unit is rented to problem tenants and who will not participate in the management of his/her property.

    Luckily the above described 'plagues' are not universally found in condominiums. Well built, well managed and well maintained complexes can be relatively trouble-free and can result in a relatively maintenance-free home.

  • Purchasing a condominium is a bit like entering into a business partnership. The success or failure of that partnership will depend on numerous details. Trouble free condominium complexes tend to have the following characteristics:

    • The siding material is not Stucco, EIFS, wood composite and even vinyl siding. I used to be less strident with my comments about condominiums with such siding products. No more, my experience tells me that buildings with such siding products are very likely to experience major problems in wet climates.

    Mushroom Growth Here is an example from a 5 year old condo with vinyl siding and sloppy trim and flashing work. The mushrooms in the red circle (no, I don't think they are edible) appear to be the result of leaks from the vinyl siding and sub-standard trim and caulking work. The blue arrow shows fungal wood-rot as a result of water wicking from a sub-standard flashing installation.

  • The structures were well designed, built according to top quality standards and constructed with quality materials that were installed by top notch professionals. (A professional inspection of the unit and the common areas and the exterior envelope can provide the evaluation needed to determine the quality of the building. See Topics: The Sound Inspection.)
  • The condominium association's by-laws are understood and agreed upon by all of the members. The by-laws should be reviewed and understood by any prospective buyer, preferably with the assistance of the buyer's attorney.
  • The condominium owners' association has contracted for periodic physical inspections of the complex and incorporates those findings into regularly updated reserve studies. These inspections and reserve studies help the association develop realistic budgets, fees and financial reserve requirements.
  • The common areas have been well maintained. The owners understand the need for, and cost of, good quality maintenance. Information about the condominium's maintenance history might be discovered by an examination of the association's records. Many states require that these records be made available to prospective homeowners for review.
  • The value of the property has appreciated, thus giving the owners reason to continue investing in good maintenance.
  • The owners get along with one another. This may be a little harder to find out, but there is no harm in talking to some of the folks in the building.
  • The owners have a common long term vision for the maintenance and upgrade of the complex.
  • If a management company is employed (usually a good idea, but not always possible in smaller complexes), the contract with the company must include the maintenance plan. Selecting a management company is similar to selecting a contractor, see Topics: A Field Guide to Bad Home Repair and Remodeling Contracts.
  • Based upon my experience as a home inspector and my understanding of the experience of others, there are some useful "risk factor" guidelines which can help identify structures which are prone to exterior envelope failure in wet climates:

    • buildings with a very small or no roof overhang (see notes about flat roofs);
    • buildings with exposed "waterproof" decks/balconies;
    • EIFS, stucco, vinyl and/or manufactured wood sided buildings;
    • buildings with sloppily installed vinyl siding (Hint: vinyl doesn't rot but if the water gets behind the vinyl the framing will rot.)
    • vertical wood siding and very thin wood siding;
    • low priced buildings with vinyl siding;
    • buildings with flat roofs (unless these roofs were designed and installed by experts!);
    • buildings with an open exposure to the prevailing winds, sun, and rain; and,

  • buildings with non-traditional designs.

    None of these risk factors can be used to predict exterior envelope failure by themselves. I am also sure that there are buildings with multiple risk factors and no exterior envelope problems. However, buildings with one or more of these risk factors:

    1. require top quality design, construction practices, supervision and inspections;
    2. require frequent and careful maintenance inspections; and,
    3. are more likely to leak and require more frequent repairs and more costly maintenance.

    Or, as my doctor tells me: a history of heart disease in the family and my elevated cholesterol levels do not predict a heart attack, but such risk factors do suggest a need for exercise...(darn!)

    Many of these concerns about condominiums are faced by owners of single family residences; some are unique to owning one unit with the joint ownership of common areas. Unfortunately, condominiums and other multi unit structures tend to have more of these problems. A particular shock for those who purchase a condominium out of a desire for fewer maintenance and repair responsibilities.

    For a comparison of condominium vs. single family home ownership, see Q&A: Should I Buy a House or a Condo?, one of the hundreds of indexed questions and answers in the Sound Home Consultant section of this site.

  • Preventive measures and good maintenance practices can reduce the risk of the types of problems described above. These measures will cost more money now but will most likely save a lot more money down the road. Here are a few tips:

    1. Have your building thoroughly inspected on a regular basis. For example: before the developer turns the building over to the home owners association, before the end of any warrantee period, and then at least every 5 years. These inspection must include some of the interior surfaces, window frames, private decks and other elements that might show issues with association responsibilities like the exterior envelope.
    2. Hire a very good property management firm to maintain you condominium complex. Don't hire the least expensive outfit. Hire the best!
    3. If you do find problems, avoid partial fixes. For example, if the siding has failed, chances are that you will have to modify some related elements. You may have to change the flashing or roof lines.
    4. Many of the problems with condominium buildings are complicated and involve design mistakes, installation mistakes, material failures, poor maintenance and delayed analysis. I see too many corrective steps that don't address these problems in a comprehensive manner and result in more exterior envelope failure.
    5. Don't even think about replacing EIFS, stucco, wood composite, and vinyl siding with the same stuff. The newer version of the failed systems may be a bit better than the stuff that failed but there are simply too many cases with multiple failures (see item #4 above).
    6. Work with your fellow home owners to solve these problems. You may have purchased a condominium in order to reduce your involvement in the maintenance of your home. That was a pipe dream.

  • When you buy a condo you purchase a specific unit and you are also buying into a home owners association (HOA) that owns and manages the complex. In other words, you are buying into the business that owns and manages the building(s) that contain "your" unit. You are entering into two roles:

    1. you are going to be the owner of one unit and depend upon the HOA for the  operation, maintenance  and care  of  the  building  complex, and
    2. you are also going to be a "partener" in that business - the HOA.

    When you buy into most other types of  businesses you want find out about the business and about your future partners. Yet when you buy a condo you may not have all the necessary information needed to evaluate the business and you will know very little about your business "partners" - your fellow HOA members. For example:

    • you are unlikely to know if the other HOA members can afford to pay the needed dues or any special assessments,
    • you will not be able to control who is getting out of the business (selling a unit) and who will buy into the HOA,
    • HOA meeting notes may help you get some sense of how the HOA members make decisions and how they get along. You might also be able to learn if their plans match your: do they tend to vote for low-end maintenance and repairs or quality work,
    • a reserve study may provide you with some idea about the condition of the building(s) but I have seen many good looking but totally incomplete and misleading reserve studies.

    Purchasing and owning a condo is a very complicated endevor.