Condo Safety: What owners, buyers need to know in wake of FL building collapse

ByJason Knowles and Ann Pistone WLS logo
Thursday, August 12, 2021
Condo Safety: What to know in wake of FL building collapse
In the wake of the deadly Florida condo collapse, experts share what condo boards should be doing and the steps you can take right now.

CHICAGO (WLS) -- It's been seven weeks since the partial collapse of the high rise in Surfside, Florida that killed 98 people. While devastation of that scale is extremely rare, condo boards everywhere are feeling more pressure to keep buildings safe.

The I-Team went to the experts to find out what condo boards should be doing and the steps you can take right now.

RESOURCE | The Illinois Condo Unit Owner's Rights and Responsibilities Handbook

"One thing we would notice is cracks in the masonry," engineer Ron Katz said. He is an engineer evaluating a Lakeview condo for repairs needed now and in the future.

Katz took the I-Team along to look at plumbing in the basement, saying, "We try to see if there is any evidence of corrosion, water leakage."

His company, Kipon Engineering, was hired by the building's association to do what's called a reserve study.

"We need someone to hold our hand to guide us on these major and minor projects," association board president Andy Weaver said.

RESOURCE | Rights and Responsibilities of Illinois Association Board Members

Weaver hired Katz because he understands proactive maintenance will protect the value of the 1924 building and keep its residents safe.

"Doing a reserve study gives them an inventory of all the items that the association is responsible for," Katz said.

One such example, he said, was a deteriorated column being corroded by Lake Michigan that Katz discovered on a different condo building.

But not all condo associations are proactive. Members are volunteers who serve as little as two years.

WATCH | What condo owners and potential condo buyers should know

"You have people who don't have any expertise, who are learning on the job, who often are very reactive to situations as oppose to active, as opposed to proactive," said Lauren Peddinghaus, who consults boards for small condo buildings on such things as planning and budgets.

She's found small condo boards aren't always willing to do reserve studies.

"It's another expense for them," Peddinghaus explained. "When large repairs need to be done, it's a very stressful time for condo board members. There might be pushback from condo owners."

Peddinghaus said most condo owners don't understand that board members could be legally responsible for making the wrong decision, according to state law.

RESOURCE | Illinois Condominium Property Act, which regulates the governance of condominiums and cooperatives

Carl Pietrzak is a consultant to boards of large condo buildings, which he said typically understand the need for reserve studies.

"Maintaining is always cheaper than repairing," Pietrzak said. "They know the building is beyond their understanding."

But when boards see a big number for a repair, Pietrzak often has to remind them that dividing that amount per owner makes it more affordable. Pietrzak added that there are recurring building repairs in larger buildings that are unique to our area.

"Some vaulted sidewalks for example, can be in front of a driveway, under or next to a condominium to go to their parking. Those can collapse," he explained. "Pieces of terracotta can fall from a height. More typically, mechanicals, air conditioners in units not being properly maintained cause unit damage."

Katz said all buildings need a plan of action with a timetable of repairs to avoid large special assessments.

"That plan can sell the owners to be onboard with it, with less animosity, less on the need for surprise assessments," he added.

Condo Safety Tips

If you're a condo owner, get involved with monthly meetings and ask what's being done to maintain your building beyond aesthetic changes.

You can ask for meeting minutes and copies of reserve studies and inspections which have been done.

If you are looking to buy a condo, know the financial condition of the association and make sure a reasonable budget is in place with a good amount of money in reserve.

Condo experts say condo owners should consider funding a "condo savings account" just in case you are faced with a surprise special assessment to address structural needs, replace windows or a boiler.