They say that a stitch in time saves nine. But when dealing with exterior maintenance and repairs for your condominium, cooperative or homeowners’ association, that proverbial stitch can save nines – or tens – of thousands of dollars. Small problems gone overlooked can amplify into debilitating damage to a property, depleted reserves, or huge assessments to owners or shareholders.
Because of the high cost of large repair projects, it’s in an association’s best interest to stay on top of regular maintenance as much as it possibly can, which means planning in advance. Establishing a detailed – yet still flexible – annual working timetable based on seasonal weather patterns, regular amenity check-ups, roofing concerns, and other moderately predictable scenarios with which the association must deal is essential in keeping both costs down and property values up.
“The most important thing for an association, when it comes to regular exterior maintenance, is to have a calendar of events in place,” urges Brent Straitiff, a principal and co-founder of TriView, a property management company in Chicago. “And it can’t be static! I can’t speak for other management companies, but we have a dynamic calendar into which we put everything that needs to happen with an association, whether that be on a monthly, seasonal, or annual basis. This creates tickets in our system at specified times that alert managers whenever task will soon need to be completed.
“The calendar is revised every year in accordance with an association’s budget to make sure that it remains consistent, and that everything is getting done,” Straitiff continues. “As new items are discovered, or existing events are shown to require a modified approach, the calendar must allow space to display adjusted information about a specific topic. This goes for contracts as well; the calendar must indicate to managers the appropriate times that different contracts may be expiring, so that management can take the appropriate action. That could mean giving a vendor notice, or exploring alternative options for that particular contract, such as renegotiation.”
Speaking of vendors, it’s worth soliciting recommendations for and establishing relationships with trusted parties before they’re needed in an emergency, such that an association does not find itself held over a barrel when it comes time to sign a contract or pay up.
“Key vendors for an association will vary, based on its property and infrastructure,” notes Joseph Balzamo, President of Alliance Property Management in Morristown. Management can be an essential liaison in forming these relationships. Balzamo cites boiler repair firms, plumbers, fuel/energy contractors, and plowing companies as examples of contractors worth knowing for most associations.
While every season presents its own unique challenges, it is commonly agreed that winter requires the most elaborate preparation in order to ensure that residents stay warm, and a building’s exterior can bear the worst of Mother Nature’s wrath.
In areas where winter weather can get particularly gnarly, planning starts much earlier than many might expect. “In New England, fast and efficient snow clearing is the top seasonal weather event for which we plan,” says Sheila Spellman, Regional Property Manager, Condominiums, with First Realty Management in Boston. “Our site managers begin to focus on snow removal contracts and policies while many people are at the beach or on summer vacation. The bidding for snow removal contracts takes place in the summer months, and most contracts are in place by early fall, when initial work begins on developing the upcoming year’s operating budget for the client’s property.
“Additionally, a fairly common major event that is brought on by extended snowfall and cold weather is the forming of ice dams on the roofs of residential buildings and structures,” Spellman continues. “If a property has a history of ice dams, our site managers will work with its board to develop an improvement plan that has to be instituted in the warm-weather months in order to prevent or eliminate the conditions inside a building that cause ice dams for the upcoming winter. This can be an improvement project that takes several years at associations where dozens of buildings are plagued by ice damming. Ice dams on roofs cause extensive interior damage to homes when water caused by melting snow from a roof cannot drain away easily and instead backs up and flows inside, damaging ceilings, walls and finished furnishings.”
In areas where winters may prove slightly more mild, it’s still advisable to get a running start. “We start planning for snow after Labor Day and ensure that all of our properties have a signed contract with a certificate of insurance with an appropriate vendor before Thanksgiving,” notes Balzamo. “And as for ice damming, to diminish its effects we ensure that all of our properties have their gutters and leaders cleaned and flushed once all the leaves have fallen from the trees. It’s a bit of a process, but it is important that the association does what it needs to ensure that this gets done.”
“Before the winter kicks in, owners have to make sure that their pipes are properly insulated,” adds David Merabyan, President of EOC-NYC, an engineering and consulting firm in Brooklyn, New York. “If some pipes are missing proper heating insulation and the cold weather kicks in enough to freeze the water, it can essentially rupture the pipes, resulting in water all over the place.
“During the winter, you’ll have freeze and cold cycles, through which water is freezing then warming, repeatedly,” Merabyan continues. “When considering facade restoration, it’s always good to do a small maintenance check as soon as winter is over to ensure that bricks didn’t crack due during that freeze cycle and thus create an unsafe condition. And the same thing applies to the retaining wall.”
While an association can certainly learn from its mistakes and plan better in subsequent years, a failure to prepare for a big weather event or to simply maintain a consistent inspection schedule can result in a major catastrophe with serious financial implications.
In New York City, for example, the Facade Inspection & Safety Program (FISP, which was known as Local Law 11) requires owners of buildings higher than six stories to have exterior walls and appurtenances inspected every five years. Failure to comply will result in fines that can compound exponentially. And, even in cities where this type of exterior inspection is not mandated, it is advisable to implement a similar routine, lest an association find itself with an unexpected major repair on its hands, without the surplus funds to back it up.
“If a[n NYC] inspector files a FISP report and deems a building unsafe, the association must repair it within 90 days,” explains Merabyan. “There are a lot of buildings in the city that have been hit with an ‘unsafe’ status and have failed to act. And they’re fined $250 per month for a year, then $1,000 per month after that. So some people, either via misunderstanding or negligence, let something like this go for a few years, and suddenly they’re $36,000 in debt. So failing to correct unsafe conditions in time can cost a lot!”
“Anytime you have deferred maintenance, or an action that needs to be taken is ignored, it decreases the useful life of a particular element, whether that be the roof or the heating or masonry with lintels,” notes Straitiff. “All of this can lead to other problems. Getting things done on time extends the useful life of an element and causes less inconvenience to homeowners. When things aren’t done, they have consequences, and the tasks that go ignored are usually either plumbing- or water-related, which have awful consequences for properties.”
Mike Odenthal is a staff writer at The New Jersey Cooperator.
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