From sprawling town home developments to high-rises to quaint four-unit residences, New Jersey is flush with condo communities. It's no surprise then that the state is also no stranger to tough guidelines for multi-family residences. The onus to stay abreast of the law falls with the association—usually with the consult of a qualified property manager. There are all the safety benchmarks, everything from the major (structural security) to the minor (lights in stairwells). And while this can sound quite daunting—especially as boards are often comprised of volunteers with day jobs that in no way pertain to running residential real estate environs—by doing some homework, and aligning with some trusted advisers, an association can stay on top of local building code, avoiding any fines that come with violations, or, in the worst case scenario, a preventable injury from occurring on its property.
Who Run Things?
First, it helps to know from where specifically the mandates governing multi-family residential in New Jersey stem. Martin Laderman, CEO of MEM property management in Jersey City, says the main authority is the Department of Community Affairs in Trenton. “The DCA inspects for health and safety every five years,” says Laderman. “But if residents have a concern in the interim, they are encouraged to call their local city inspector for any concerns about health or the property itself.”
“The DCA also requires each condo property to be registered,” Laderman continues. “And, as an inspection looms for a particular association, the DCA will contact that association in advance, so it can notify owners and any relevant vendors, as the state inspectors require access to 70 percent of a building’s units in order to properly conduct its business.”
During one of these routine inspections, “the association is often informed as to some issues that are deficient, and is then given a specified time period to cure the deficiency,” explains Attorney Stuart J. Lieberman, a shareholder attorney with the law firm of Lieberman & Blecher, P.C. in Princeton. “Frequently, fines will not be assessed so long as the association complies to state recommendations in a timely fashion, and that the violations are not particularly serious or an indicator of chronic behavior.”
Should an inspector find an association responsible for a building code violation, an association can be forgiven for spending a fleeting second wondering if this is something that really needs to be fixed—especially should that association find itself short on funds, or in disagreement with the nature of the violation at hand. But Lieberman advises such boards that “ignoring a problem is by far the worst thing that an association can do. Often, extra time is required to take care of a violation, as the problem is revealed to be more severe than originally believed, or more costly. Most of the time, a call to the inspector with a written follow-up is all that is needed to show that a good faith attempt to comply is taking place. A pattern of repeated promises, followed by repeated failure, however, is a recipe for a big fine.”
While crossing some fingers and leaving the results to chance may help an association coast through one miracle inspection, a proactive, hands-on attempt toward maintenance of a property is a more reliable bet.
To this extent, it helps for an association to know what inspectors may target. Laderman has some specific recommendations from his significant experience walking properties: “Both smoke and carbon monoxide detectors are a must, unless your property is entirely electric and is not above a garage, in which case, carbon isn’t an issue. Inspectors also look for self-closing doors in the units to verify that, should a fire break out, it would be contained as residents flee its source. Illegal extension cords seem to be a big issue of late, as well as properly vented hot water heaters.”
Of course, one good way to pass an inspection is to avoid having to take it at all, which is a possible route for certain qualified properties, in regard to specific fire regulations. According to Lynn Voorhees, director of community association services at DW Smith Associates, an engineering and consulting firm in Wall Township, a multi-family property, under New Jersey’s Hotel and Multiple Dwelling Law, can have a professional engineer inspect its premises, looking to ensure that it meets certain standards, mostly pertaining to fire separation walls.
“In a townhome community, for example, there are usually fire separation walls between every unit,” says Voorhees. “But, if not, then we need to verify that there are at least such separation walls between every four. We also need to verify that there’s no more than 4,800 square feet between these separation walls. Then we have to write a letter confirming that a property complies with the exemption requirements as dictated by the DCA, and we have to provide drawings of the different types of buildings in the association, and where specifically the walls are located. Then, the association has to sign what I believe is called a 'certification in lieu of affidavit,' and provide a site map that identifies any non-homeowner-occupied units. The latter are not exempt to inspections, as inspectors take a different approach when they’re advocating for the rights of a renter. So once the association sends its report to the state, they’ll be granted an exemption that requires only those rented units to be inspected every five years.”
It should be noted that the aforementioned exemption is usually unavailable for high-rises over three stories. Taller buildings have other fire safety criteria, pertaining to sprinkler systems, stairwells and elevators that place them in a category of their own with more routine and rigorous inspections.
But should an association find its property conforming to exemption criteria, Voorhees recommends that they pursue it. For one, it eliminates some work for the state, which can mean one less headache for everyone involved. Also, Voorhees recounts a recent encounter with a property manager that had just underwent one of the regular five-year inspections. It cost many thousands of dollars for an association of under 200 units to comply with the state. And even those associations with a reliable property management company can find themselves charged with extra fees if scheduling and monitoring inspection schedules isn’t part of that management company’s general offerings.
Up On It
Despite all of this talk about violations, New Jersey associations more often than not handle the inspection process with aplomb, according to Karen Thomlinson, a senior inspector at Frost Christenson & Associates, an engineering consulting firm in Flanders. “Associations have to be on top of things in order to maintain their standings within their individual municipalities,” says Thomlinson. “New Jersey is really adamant about all of this stuff, coming through with fire inspectors, safety inspectors, multiple dwelling inspectors...Plus, the risk for an association were it to drop the ball is prohibitively expensive compared to striving to follow the code.”
As to what an association can do between inspection years to make sure that a property is ideally maintained, there’s plenty to go around. Voorhees recommends taking a regular survey of the building and its surroundings each fall and each spring, noting displaced sidewalks, holes and any tripping hazards. “We also recommend that an association check all of its maintenance boxes: cleaning gutters, caulking around windows to prevent water infiltration, checking roofs for deteriorating, maintaining clean catch-basins, etc. We go so far sometimes as to work with an association to put together its maintenance schedule.”
One final important note: while this all seems quite regimented, and can be made nearly seamless by contracting a renowned property manager to monitor the day-to-day, human folly is, as always, a factor in the inspection game. “The state is generally so understaffed that, while inspections are supposed to happen every five years, it can sometimes take as long as six,” notes Laderman. “And then, while most minor violations are supposed to be sorted out in 30 days, you might not see a return visit for as many as 60.”
Those discrepancies aside, however, it’s certainly not advised for an association to push its luck. Dissatisfied owners or even concerned onlookers can notify the municipality or state about a potential violation, expediting the inspection process, and causing an unpleasant surprise for an association resting on its laurels. And sometimes, there are just bad apples in the bunch. “Every association has its chronic complainers,” says Lieberman. “There’s always one person who loves searching for obscure and meaningless but technically valid violations, and then alerting officials. The government will generally respond to each complaint, due to fear that the one they forgo will result in large-scale damage or industry.”
So even an association that is reasonably on top of its inspection schedule can find itself at the mercy of circumstance. In that regard, an association’s best bet is to become familiar with the DCA website, ask any pertinent questions of its property manager, consult counsel if one particular owner seems especially problematic, and contract a qualified engineer to walk the property and let them know what issues, major or minor, might be in store. Allocating funds for a rainy day can render the threat of an inspection anxiety-free.
Michael Odenthal is a staff writer for the New Jersey Cooperator.