Most vintage condominium conversions in Chicago these days are “gut rehabs.” This means that the developer keeps only the shell of the old building and installs all new mechanical systems and fixtures. This type of construction allows developers to save money and time because rehabbing is not as costly or lengthy a process as building from the ground up.
Conversions are popular with buyers because they can get a more affordable unit in a rehabbed building – and the security of knowing that the plumbing and electrical systems are all brand new.
Or are they?
Most builders install all new mechanicals, but we find secondhand equipment in more than 10 percent of the new conversions that we inspect. “New furnaces” and “new water heaters” sometimes have their serial numbers, model numbers and data tags mysteriously missing, and items that supposedly were replaced turn out only to have been repaired.
There are many things you can look for before you sign a contract to help determine whether your developer is spending the necessary cash to convert to condominium ownership or is trying to pass major financial burdens on to you, the new buyer.
Obviously, a ten-year-old elevator is better than a fifty-year-old elevator, a new rubber roof is better than an old “hot mopped” one, and new windows are better than old windows. Here are some other, less obvious things to look for in the plumbing and electrical departments before you close on that “new” rehabbed condo.
Insist that your real estate agent or developer shows you the cold water main to the building. Walk up to that main at the floor level and scratch the pipe with a key or a dime. If it shines bright silver beneath the scratch mark it is probably lead and more than 16 years old.
Chicago requires replacement of the cold water main when the plumbing supply pipes are replaced. It is fair to assume that if your building is equipped with an old lead service, your pipes will be old galvanized pipes. They will need to be overhauled very soon, and at no small cost.
If you are buying in a highrise, the water service will not be lead, so you will need to know the date the building was built to assess quality. Domestic hot water piping in highrise buildings may only have a 25-year life expectancy, and replacing it can average $2,000 to $4,000 per bath.
Another plumbing test is even simpler. Turn on the shower and sink base hot water valves. Go over to the toilet and flush it while concentrating on the hot water stream from the showerhead. Does it fluctuate? Is the water full of granulated rust? Did pressure drop significantly? If so, you might need to replace supply pipe, which can be very expensive.
Imagine yourself in the shower when your downstairs neighbor flushes his or her toilet. The shower will do the same thing it did when you flushed the toilet in your unit. First- and second-degree burns are a possibility if you are not quick on your feet in the bathtub.
Wiring is another often overlooked element because problems don’t become apparent until buyers have moved in. Ask your real estate agent to show you the wiring where it enters the building at its exterior. The wiring must be fed through a shiny steel pipe and into a series of electrical meters. The pipe should be two inches or larger and there should be shiny pipes coming out of the base of the electric meter, passing through the building’s wall and feeding electrical service panels for individual condos.
This is where we typically find the electrical panel and disconnect switch. Open the door on the panel box for your unit (this may require going upstairs or into a closet) and count the number of circuit breakers for your living space. Typically, you will receive six as a minimum. If you don’t have six breakers, and your condo is larger than 850 square feet, you will probably need to add more breakers. Not a pleasant thought for a new condominium buyer.
A shiny steel pipe that carries the building’s power is a good sign. It means that the electrical service has been upgraded. Usually a two-inch pipe provides 200 amps and a four-inch pipe provides 400 amps. A reasonable rule of thumb is to assume 20 circuit breakers per 100 amps, with each condominium requiring six or more circuits. Just do the math: 400 amps will generally provide 80 circuit breakers, which could typically support around 13 condominiums.
If your building is under-supplied in the amperage department, don’t even think about voltage and wattage. You will need a new electrical service over the short term. Remember, the electrical meters should be mounted at the building’s exterior if the building has been modernized (Com Ed wants access to shut your power off if you are not paying your bills).
Should you purchase a highrise condo, locate your electrical panel box and make sure that it is rated for 100 amps. This number will be printed on the cover or inside area of the electrical box, and often is also included in recessed numbers on your main circuit breaker or switch. Less than 100 amps is usually a problem that results in major expense later.
Thomas Corbett is president of Tomacor, Inc. a professional property consulting company specializing in commercial and residential property inspections and expert witness work.