An important consideration of nearly all purchasers of residential condominium units is the fact that a condominium provides the advantages of home ownership without the time-consuming and laborious tasks that are an expected part of maintaining a house and property. After all, exterior maintenance is taken care of by the association. But that does not mean that maintenance and repair issues are something with which condominium owners need not be concerned. On the contrary, there are several reasons why building issues should be matters of extreme urgency in a condominium setting.
It is important to first understand the condominium form of ownership. The purchaser buys a unit that is owned in the same way that an individual home would be owned, but also receives an ownership interest, in common with all other owners, in the common elements of the complex. Each owner’s property, therefore, includes all of the common elements in addition to their unit. This means that maintenance and repair issues in the common elements effect the value, maintainability, and useful life of every owner’s property.
Moreover, all owners, by virtue of their membership in the council of unit owners, are responsible for the maintenance, repair, and replacement of all of the common element components. And any unit owner, because of their ownership rights in the common elements, may compel the association to properly maintain the common elements and correct any defects.
This ownership and related responsibility applies no matter how many buildings might be involved, or how far removed any common element component might be from any given unit. Indeed, the fact that large buildings or multiple buildings may be involved in a condominium project means that common element maintenance and repair issues are often much more problematic and considerably more expensive than those that would ever be confronted by an individual homeowner.
Additionally, Maryland law requires that condominium owners, at the time of resale, disclose to prospective purchasers any knowledge of conditions in any part of the condominium that constitute violations of applicable building codes. Accordingly, defective conditions in the common elements have a direct bearing on the marketability of an individual unit.
As a result of these factors, building problems in condominiums are a matter that can neither be taken lightly nor ignored, because they effect every owner’s interests and can potentially have enormous financial consequences.
To properly protect themselves, condominium owners need to understand the construction of their buildings. This is necessary even in the absence of specific problems, because condominiums are statutorily required to establish annual budgets for maintenance and replacement reserves. Initial budgets established by the developer are often kept low in order to allow for lower annual fees that are attractive to purchasers. The unit owners need to develop their own realistic figures for maintenance and reserves, and must become familiar with their buildings in order to understand the proper maintenance required and the anticipated useful life of the various components.
In doing so, condominium owners also need to become aware of any defective conditions not in compliance with codes, contract documents, and industry standards. Such issues must be corrected if the condominium council is to meet its responsibilities to the owners, and, if inherent in original construction, may be conditions that the developer is responsible for correcting under warranty and common law obligations. To preserve and pursue any such claims against the developer, the association must know what defects exist, what constitutes a proper method of repair, and the cost of such repair.
In order to gain the information necessary to intelligently maintain the project, as well as identify conditions for which the developer may be responsible, condominiums must engage appropriate consultants. A transition study of the property should be undertaken at the time the owners assume responsibility for the complex from the developer. Such studies establish valid figures for annual maintenance and reserves, and identify conditions that are defective or call for further investigation.
Where problems become apparent, whether by virtue of a transition study or unit owner experience, a forensic engineering investigation should be undertaken so that the true nature of the conditions can be properly identified and an appropriate repair specified. The resulting engineering report also forms the basis for supporting any claim for damages that might be pursued against the developer.
And it is important to be mindful that time is of the essence with respect to preserving claims against the developer. Warranties are of limited duration, and common law claims do not accrue upon actual knowledge, but, instead, commence when the property owner, in the exercise of reasonable diligence, should have been on notice of the need to investigate.
Condominium ownership offers many benefits, but being absolutely carefree is not one of them. Only a diligent and informed unit owner can protect themselves from undue expense and unwanted aggravation.