The tragic collapse of Champlain Tower South in Surfside, Florida, left people wondering about the safety of high-rise buildings across the United States. High-rise condo owners viewing the shocking images naturally wonder if what happened in Surfside could happen to them. Officials continue sifting through the disaster to understand what happened, but we have few answers for now. 

As you evaluate the safety of high-rise condo living, keep in mind something like this has never happened before. That is not to say it cannot happen again, but the tragedy has magnified the relevance of condominium and apartment construction and inspections. Inspections, repairs, and certification processes are likely weighted more seriously now in communities across the nation. 

You can take measures to ensure your condominium is in sound structural condition. It is your home, whether it's your primary residence, a vacation home, second home, or rental property. Naturally, you want it to be as safe as possible for you, your family, and all of your guests. Any concerns about the safety and structural shape of your building need to be alleviated.

Do remember all structures are subject to deterioration over time, even single-family homes. Part of being a homeowner is keeping properties in a safe, livable condition. When you live in a condominium, you share the responsibility of maintaining the overall structure in a habitable condition. You collaborate with other homeowners and the homeowner's association (HOA) to keep the property well-maintained and share the common area expenses through association fees and special fees.

How to check for safety if you are a condo owner 

If you see things in your condominium structure that make you question if the property needs an inspection or assessment of its safety, what do you do?

#1- Go to the HOA

The first course of action is to bring the issue up with the condominium HOA or the condo board. Know the process for bringing up concerns or levying complaints. Make sure your concerns are brought up at the next board meeting. However, if you are worried the issue cannot wait, do bring it up earlier to the board members.

You want to get the issue on record and see if the board will take action to resolve the concern.

Hopefully, your condominium homeowner association will work ardently to address the issue and take reasonable steps to alleviate the problem.

A structural inspection will take some time to schedule and get the results. Deciding on a course of action will probably take a few meetings of the association, plus vetting any vendors for any structural engineering improvements to the property. Since this process takes time, it's vital not to wait if something bothers you.

#2-What if the condo board isn't acting?

The condo board must act to fix any severe defects and structural issues. The condo board has the responsibility to work in the best interest of the unit owners. The condo board could be culpable, as could the architect, builder, and engineer, if they do not try to resolve any serious design flaws. 

If you feel the board is not taking the issue seriously or is not acting fast enough, you can call the local building or code enforcement department to report your concern.

#3- Remember your HOA fees

One frequent point of contention in condo ownership is the monthly maintenance fees or association dues. No one likes paying more money, but these fees are part of condo living.

Please keep in mind as your board discusses any increases to these fees, that the cost of living goes up over time. If you want your condo to continue being well maintained, your monthly HOA fee will increase over the years. Growing the reserve account to assist with significant repairs means the fee has to go up to account for inflation and increased labor costs.

When significant repairs do arise, and the board starts creating a project budget, vetting vendors, and calculating the assessment, be part of that discussion. You a condo owner and association member by default, so you should know what is happening in your building. It's natural to experience some sticker shock. But I think what we have seen is putting off necessary repairs can have tragic consequences.

One thing published in the media is the town of Surfside estimated Champlain Towers South needed around $16 million to repair cracked columns and crumbling concrete. The individual homeowners were facing anywhere from $80,000 to $330,000 in payments to handle these repairs.

It is so essential to keep allocating some dues to the reserve fund. If a substantial capital repair like Champlain Towers residents faced arises, the HOA would have a cushion to help people on a fixed income or can't afford such a large price tag for significant capital repair work.

What to do if you are buying a condo

The condominium buying process should take a little longer than buying a single-family home, even with an all-cash offer. You have extra due diligence to take to verify the condo is the right place for you to live. Follow these steps to ensure you are buying into a well-maintained and safe condo complex.

#1- Access condo records

When buying a condo, you have the right to look at the Condo Association's records. A review of the bylaws and financials should be written into your purchase and sale agreement as a contingency. You should be able to access some records before you extend an offer as part of deciding if this complex is right for you.

Some specific details you will want to review in the condominium records: 

  • What is the financial status of the condo homeowner’s association? You are checking if they are overextended with their financials, if money is in reserves for capital repairs, and how often special assessments have been levied to cover shared expenses. Review the budget expenditures and their allocation for annual and capital repairs.

  • How does the condo homeowner association operate? The residents operate most HOAs. Some associations hire property managers to oversee the daily operations of the building or complex. Look at how people become HOA board members or directors, the hiring process, and the vendor selection process. Familiarize yourself with the complaints process in case you have a concern in the future.

  • What is the repair or inspection history? The HOA must keep records for at least several years on building inspections and any capital repairs. See what maintenance work has been done and ask if any repairs are scheduled for the near future.

  • How much money is in the reserve fund?A reserve fund ensures cash is available when a significant repair is needed. All condo HOAs should have a reserve fund in place for unexpected or significant repairs. We hear about condo horror stories or extensive special assessments when the HOA lacks enough money in the reserve fund. Depending on the property and the association dues, 25-40% of your condo association fee should go towards the reserve fund. Some experts say most reserves should be funded at 70% or higher of the condo's calculated deterioration. Low reserve funds mean you risk footing an extraordinarily high special assessment bill.

  • Is there any pending litigation?Here you're assessing if residents have lobbied significant complaints and what the issues with the building may be. You don't want to buy into a complex with court cases waiting because those litigation fees will be passed to you, either as an assessment or increased association dues.

A correctly written purchase and sale agreement should allow you to rescind the offer if your review of the condo association's documents reveals concerns.

#2- Understand Texas condominium-related laws

Before you buy, review the state and local laws and regulations regarding condominium construction and inspection. In Florida, the Champlain Towers condominium was required to undergo a 40-year reinspection and certification process. During this inspection, the building showed issues. The HOA members also voiced concerns about the visible deterioration of concrete around the building.

Texas does not have a 40-year reinspection requirement. We do have other laws pertinent to condominiums. A few highlights:

  • Every industrialized builder is requiredto keep records of all industrialized housing and buildings that were sold, leased, or installed, for a minimum of 10 years from the date on the final on-site inspection report. These reports include a copy of the site-specific foundation drawings, a copy of on-site inspection reports, the occupancy use of each building containing modules or modular components, and Records showing compliance with mandatory building codes.

  • Section 82.114 concerns association records. Your condo association is required to keep detailed financial records that could enable the association to prepare a resale certificate. They must keep the plans and specifications used to construct any condominium after January 1st, 1994. Any condominium information statements prepared under section 82.152 and its amendments, voting records, proxies, and correspondence relating to the amendments to the declaration are also required to be kept.

  • As far as construction and building codes, Fort Worth and the state of Texas have adopted the International Building Codes. (2015 IBC, Section 1704.2.1) These codes pertain to building, mechanical, plumbing, fuel gas, fire, existing building, and energy conservation codes. The city has also adopted the 2018 International Swimming Pool and Spa Code. The adopted electrical code is the 2020 National Electrical Code. Find the specific minimum building codes in the legal library.

  • The City of Fort Worth requires the fire department to inspect all buildings with four or more stories and buildings with over 200,000 square feet of floor space every year. The city defines the high-rise building as any building over 75 feet in height. The owner, building manager, or property manager representative of any building that meets or exceeds this height must have a valid Certificate of Inspection for the entire structure. A high-rise inspector from the Fort Worth Fire Department typically performs the inspection. The owner, manager, or occupant has 30 days to remedy any violations.

  • State law requires a property owner's association with at least 14 lots to follow a document retention policy. This law has the minimum length of time that specific records should be kept. These are detailed in Section 209.005(m) of the Texas Property Code. Specifically:
    • Bylaws, restrictive covenants, articles of incorporation, and amendments must be kept permanently
    • Financial books and records, meeting minutes of owners and board of directors, tax returns, and audits must be kept seven years
    • Account records of current owners must be kept five years
    • Any contracts of a length of at least one year must be kept for four years after their expiration date

  • There are also required inspections for multifamily dwellings. If your condominium falls under the stipulations of a multifamily dwelling, there can be inspections for code violations or complaints. The inspection will look at all building exteriors, all exterior and interior public areas, vacant dwelling units, and occupied units with the tenants' consent or if the court has issued a valid warrant. These inspections are required at least once every two years.

#3 - What to ask when buying a condo

When you are considering purchasing a condo, focus beyond the specific unit. Consider the structure's age. Older buildings are likely to need more repairs and have more signs of deterioration. Newer constructed condominium complexes benefit from improved building codes and construction practices.

If you're buying into a condo complex with plentiful amenities, part of your tour would include those special upgrades. Pay attention to what you see, not just as a lifestyle enhancement, but in how well it has been maintained and its condition. Look at the parking garages and other common areas. Ask questions about the things you see, including their maintenance and upkeep. 

During the tour, ask about the building's last inspection and if any work is planned on the structure or exteriors. Pay attention to the condition of public areas, such as the parking garages, shared amenities, and the exterior up to the unit.

#4- What to know about the condo home inspection process

You have the right to a home inspection if you move forward with purchasing a condo. In a typical single-family house inspection, the inspector looks at all the building systems. The inspection checks if everything is in working order as these building systems become the owner's responsibility after purchase.

Many systems and parts of the structure are shared in a condo, so the certified inspector doesn't necessarily spend as much time on the building's systems. Part of this is because not everything may be as accessible to the inspector, such as the condominium roof. Sometimes it's simply too complex for a residential home inspector to make an assessment. Another reason is sometimes the working parts are serviced regularly by specialists in that particular field.

You want your home inspector to look carefully at the shared elements between the homeowners. Look at the walls, ceilings, and floors for any water damage. Any leaks from someone else's kitchen or toilets can destroy your home, and vice versa.

What do we know to date about the Surfside collapse

Based on what was current in the media at the time of drafting, we know that the HOA was aware of Champlain Towers South's structural problems. This was documented in a letter by the HOA president sent in April. We also know the HOA board was taking measures to remedy the structural issues and had hired an engineering firm.

There were also some differences in communication that downplayed the severity of the building's condition. An NPR story discussed a November 2018 meeting where a Surfside town inspector met with building residents and told them the condominium was in "very good shape." The residents were told that the building was not in danger.

This countered the engineering report that warned of major structural damage that needed immediate repair.

It is also reported that a condo HOA board change over after the 40-year inspection may have delayed any action on repairing the structure.

Either way, this is truly a tragedy that is sure to leave a lasting impact not just for the affected families but for all residents of high-rise condos and their developers. In the coming months, engineering and construction experts will analyze the wreckage for clues to help them understand why the structure failed and how it can be prevented in the future.

Make a smart condominium purchase

Condo living has many advantages; use these steps and our expertise to alleviate your concerns. At Chicotsky Real Estate Group, we have always taken due diligence seriously. We consider it one of the essential services we offer as a Fort Worth real estate agent. Trust our team to guide you through the condo-buying process as we find a safe and convenient new home for you.