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July 24, 2021, 10:15 a.m. EDT

Condo safety is often about the money—how to check out if a building is vulnerable to risks

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Margie Zable Fisher

This article is reprinted by permission from  .

We are all horrified about the Surfside, Fla. condo collapse , and our hearts go out to families and friends of the victims. This type of tragedy is, thankfully, uncommon, but does bring up an important question: How can you know if your retirement condo building is safe and the ways to evacuate in an emergency?

Of course, there’s no way to  guarantee  the safety of condominiums, and it will likely take many months to determine the  cause or causes of the Surfside disaster . But this incident shows why current and prospective high-rise condo unit owners need to learn about potential safety problems and actions to prevent them.

The best place to start: the Condominium Owners’ Association (COA).

“A Condominium Owners’ Association is required for every condominium building in the United States,” says Richard Swerdlow, a South Florida-based attorney, and owner of Condo.com portal. “COAs typically require residents to pay a monthly or quarterly maintenance fee and will occasionally assess one-time charges to cover large community expenses and repair projects beyond funds held in reserve.”

The association is made up of a volunteer board of directors who are owners and are elected by the units’ owners. The board is in charge of managing the association’s finances and hiring people and companies to repair, clean and maintain the community. It’s governed by the association’s rules and regulations.

Read : ‘Climate change risk’ may be spurring home buyers to steer clear of coastal Florida markets, study says

What to ask the condo owners’ association

Michele Bellisari, a Realtor with Real Broker in Boca Raton, Fla., says that Realtors typically provide prospective buyers with current condo documents, including the most recent budget and financial statements, association rules and regulations and — in many cases — a seller disclosure.

But condo buyers and owners can also request the following information from the Condominium Owners’ Association:

  • Past building inspection reports and engineering reports

  • Notes from COA meetings to determine potential issues and repair needs

  • The history of assessments (one-time special fees residents pay for major repairs and renovations); what the assessments were used for and if there are assessments coming up

  • Whether and when concrete restoration has been done; elevators have been replaced or repaired and balconies have been replaced or repaired

  • Whether the building has gone through, or is getting ready to go through, a recertification process

  • Whether the board considers the amount of money in reserves (collected from association fees) is adequate to cover repairs, replacements and emergency repairs and whether a reserve study has been done in the last three years — otherwise, assessments may need to be levied on condo owners

Gaining this knowledge will help you determine any areas that need to be repaired or replaced, as well as the funding available (or needed) to make them.

Related : Home buyers are starting to factor flood and wildfire risks into their real estate decisions — and it’s affecting price growth

It’s all (or often) about the money

But the reality is that when you have a group of people (such as a condo board) deciding on whether to pay for repairs, you can have different opinions. That can ultimately affect the condo building’s safety.

According to a July 1, 2021 New York Times article, disagreements among the Surfside building’s condo owners may have played a part in the tragedy .

“For years before the partial collapse of the Champlain Towers South complex near Miami, the condo board wrestled with how to come up with the $15 million needed to fix the building’s dilapidated roof, a poorly designed pool deck and crumbling support columns.”

The problem, The Times article explained: “The homeowners’ association had just $800,000 in reserves, and getting the work done meant asking residents to shoulder huge special assessments ranging from $80,000 to $200,000 on each home. No one was eager to pay.”

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