Don't Neglect Essentials Maintenance Items That Can't Wait

 It's a common enough story: the condominium was relatively new, but from the  start its board of directors was stingy with maintenance and repair dollars.  Then the recession struck, and the percentage of unpaid maintenance fees  spiked. After several years of neglected physical facilities, half the condo's  elevators weren’t working. Unpainted interior hallways and uncleaned carpeting and tile  encouraged mold and mildew growth. Utility bills went unpaid for so long that  the electric company threatened to cut off the power, and garbage collection  was sporadic. Due to mismanaged collections and finances, the community is now  teetering on the verge of bankruptcy.  

 Luckily, the economy has improved a bit but staying ahead financially has not  gotten any easier, and that goes for associations as well. “It's the dollar figure. If associations have the money they're going to say: ‘Okay, let's get it repaired.’ If they don't they're going to say, 'No let's put it off, let's wait another  six months, maybe we'll be in a better financial situation' than they are now,” says Dominick Frontera, president of World Wide Construction in Ridgefield  Park. “Money is the reason why people don't want their maintenance raised because they  say that can't afford it. And you can understand that, but the money has to  come from somewhere to make those repairs,” he says. If you don't, the hole can only get deeper.  

 Absolute Essentials

 Industry experts believe that at the top of everyone’s maintenance list should be life-safety items for which code violations could  prompt steep fines from a government inspector, or even closure of a building.  This includes elevators, fire extinguishers, sprinkler systems, smoke alarms,  carbon monoxide detectors, and painting of curb corners to meet fire-marshal  requirements. These tend to be less expensive, and they're huge liability  issues as well, so getting them taken care of is a matter of necessity.  

 Safety items rarely pull you down a money pit. When it comes to the physical  construction of the building, a bad roof can have the most disastrous  consequences if neglected because it can cause a chain reaction. “If that roof is leaking, it's penetrating into the floor below that and maybe  even the floors lower than that. It causes damage on the walls, mold, mildew,  flooring gets destroyed, and the calking of your windows—it allows heat to escape,” says Frontera.  

 “And of course, your brick, your facades. During the winter time, if water's  behind that brick, it freezes, and it causes those bricks to start popping. If  that brick falls and hits someone in the sidewalk—big lawsuit,” he says. Of course, not everyone has a brick facade, but the point remains. A  dilapidated roof can turn into a dilapidated building, and quickly.  

 Where Water Resides

 Experts say that water leaks are the leading cause of damage in condominiums and  believe that most leaks run between walls, underground, and/or in areas that  are not readily visible. Raised sidewalks, water bubbling on the lawn, and  spidering around storm drains may disclose underlying problems with storm-water  and fresh-water lines needing prompt attention. A big part of keeping the inside of homes dry is often overlooked: sealants.  

 “Sealants typically have a life span of five to seven years. They need to be  inspected regularly and they need to be replaced before the end of their life  span,” says Mark Harris Berman, AIA, PP, UD an architect and professional planner  principal at Berman & Wright in Somerville. “I've seen numbers of buildings that are maybe 20 years old, and it's the  original sealant material.” How the sealants are installed can also make a big difference. “Sometimes they are improperly designed, sometimes they are improperly installed,  sometimes they're improperly maintained,” he says.  

 What Can Be Deferred

 It's logical enough that the big projects shouldn't be put off—if it means putting the entire building in jeopardy. “Buildings are intended to act as systems, integrated and if one section of that  fails, it's possible to impact another section,” Berman continues. But, associations run into financial pinches all the time.  Surely there must be something that can be put off. “Well, there's a certain time when they can put certain things off, but it  doesn't get any better. It just gets progressively worse,” says Frontera. “So if you allow that brick to start popping, it doesn't get any better it just  gets worse.”  

 One way to lighten the load, says Berman, is for associations to stagger their  maintenance schedules, so the expenses don't hit all at once. “An association can choose to do a maintenance schedule where they're replacing  their sealants on different buildings in different years so that they're not  bearing the costs of all the work at one time,” he says.  

 Another option, according to Frontera, is to simply get as much done in one  maintenance project. For instance, if one floor needs facade work, take care of  everything else while the tools, the labor, and the setup are all in place. “We offer to our clients a payout plan, if need be, where they give us ‘x’ amount of dollars down, and every month they'll pay us so much,” says Frontera. Associations should explore companies that offer such plans.  

 It mostly goes without saying, but if a building falls down the slippery slope  of disrepair, the consequences can be dire. “I know of a building that was finally condemned. The people had to evacuate and  find other places to live. And unfortunately the association was forced to come  up with some kind of funding to house them until they were able to fix their  building,” says Frontera. Associations shouldn't take the maintenance budget lightly, for  the simple reason that they are on the hook if things go south, he says.  

 An association with a reserve study and a reserve budget might set aside money  for routine projects such as painting or larger repairs. A reserve study is a  good way to lock in money, so when it's needed it's there, and there's no  tussling. But, even if reserves are properly funded, they don’t cover certain emergencies, such as a lightning strike that blows up the  air-conditioning compressor. Reserve studies can also help associations come up  with creative ways to get more out of their infrastructure if they follow  diligent repair schedules. The life of domestic water pumps and motors can be  prolonged by having multiple units and setting them to run on an alternating  basis. Thus, if a pump motor is made to last 20 years, alternating between  pumps may yield another five to 10 years from each motor.  

 For some associations, pinching pennies is a dangerous balancing act, and if  they fall by the wayside, the results are observable. “The more you maintain your building, the more it's attractive to a prospective  buyer. The more you allow it deteriorate, somebody walks in and they see stains  on the ceiling, stains on the wall, paint chipping off the windows and so  forth, they're going to think twice about purchasing it. It just increases  value by maintaining your building,” says Frontera.  

 The onus is on the association or board, but a good adviser can be invaluable  when it comes to keeping on top of repairs. “Boards can be diligent in having their property managers and property management companies understand what the requirements are for their  particular buildings, and if they don't already have some kind of program and  schedule implemented they could go ahead and have that work done by a  professional, who does understand the requirements,” says Berman. Building leaders also have a plethora of information to  self-educate. “There is tons of information out there, and I'm sure associations like the  Community Associations Institute (CAI) have programs for property managers to  bring them up to speed. A little bit of knowledge goes a long way,” says Berman.  

 Seeking Professional Guidance

 Experts say that another way to educate yourself is also just talking to other  associations and boards. “I'm the board president of a building and every six months we send out a flyer:  'Please list any items that you think should be addressed now or in the near  future.' Because during six months, you know something could start to leak, and  they say 'oh, it's leaking, I have to tell someone,' but they don't. But by  them getting this form they fill it out and they return it and those items can  be addressed,” says Frontera. Fixing little things is a stop-gap measure but sometimes can  avoid headaches if they turn into larger capital projects.  

 As painful as it is to spend money on repairs, especially if it looks like it  can be put off just a little longer, it’s imperative to enlist the help of qualified professionals to formulate a plan,  and stick to that plan and just get it done.   

 George Leposky is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor to The New  Jersey Cooperator and other publications. Editorial Assistant Tom Lisi  contributed to this article.  

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