Before you buy, make sure your home inspector zeroes in on common areas

New Construction Corner

Tom Corbett

If you’re buying a condo, you’re not just buying a home. You’re also taking on financial responsibility for the whole building: roof, basement, tuck pointing, boiler room, sewer system, foundation and any other areas in which ownership and maintenance are shared by the condo board.

It’s a heady commitment – and yet home inspectors don’t typically look at common areas, even though that’s where the majority of a building’s problems occur. In my experience, that’s because real estate agents discourage it. They’d rather not have an inspector turn up a rash of deficiencies that will give a buyer cold feet or launch a new round of negotiations with the seller. And inspectors too frequently go along with this ploy so that agents will continue to send them referrals.

This sleight of hand can hurt real estate buyers in several ways. Take, for example, an inspection I recently performed at a newly constructed condo building in the West Loop. When my client and I arrived for the inspection, I asked the agent to take us to the roof. She balked, saying, “I’ve never heard of anyone asking to see the roof.” There was no need, since problems had been assessed months ago and money had already been set aside to repair them, she said.

I often encounter this kind of resistance, but since roofs are especially trouble-prone, I insisted that my client and I be allowed to take a look. Sure enough, when we got up there we found a team of guys in white shirts and ties walking around with clipboards, noting problems.

The property manager, who was up there too, said he’d gotten an estimate for $1.1 million to fix roofing and masonry. My next burning question was whether money had in fact already been set aside to pay for these repairs. He couldn’t confirm that it had. I advised my client to get the condo board’s meeting minutes and check for herself. There’s no reason she should inherit a financial burden along with her new condo – a burden that should have been shouldered by the former occupant or the developer of this two-year-old building, who likely caused the problems in the first place.

I did a rough calculation of the cost of repairs divided by the number of condo owners in the building and determined that my client could be stuck with a $10,000 tab. But that’s just one of the costs she might incur. If the building turned out to have serious ongoing problems, she might have a tough time selling her unit. She’d also be responsible for disclosing the building’s flaws to a buyer, who could sue her if she withheld critical information.

And problems in common areas can be critical. In my experience, some frequent offenders in new-construction buildings include ill-fitting doors that allow moisture into the building, incomplete or leaky roofs, and masonry that allows water to seep inside the structure. I’ve even seen condos with balconies that are angled incorrectly and send water back into the unit.

Condo conversions can have deficiencies, too, including plumbing leaks, exposed asbestos, oil tanks sealed off behind drywall when they should have been removed and, of course, roof leaks.

It can be pretty heartbreaking when a condo you love comes with a hefty repair bill. A real estate agent may try to convince you that you have to fork over the dough or back out of the deal. In fact, you may be able to negotiate with the seller, who might agree to pay for the repairs out of his or her equity.

Tom Corbett is president of Tomacor, Inc, a professional property consulting company specializing in commercial and residential property inspections and expert witness work. E-mail your construction questions to Tom at Inspection@Tomacor.com

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