Is That Condo Building Structurally Sound?

Florida real estate professionals share tips on identifying potential red flags after the collapse of Champlain Towers South in Surfside.
Empty lot where the Champlain Towers South condo building once stood

© Joe Raedle - Getty Images

The empty lot where the Champlain Towers South condo building once stood in Surfside, Fla., now serves as a temporary memorial to the tragedy.

Key takeaways:

  • Explain to clients that building collapses are exceedingly rare in the U.S., which follows International Building Code standards.
  • Request documents from the condo association to provide clients with an idea of the thoroughness and consistency of building maintenance.
  • Urge buyers who identify or suspect red flags, either of a structural or a financial nature, to consult with a qualified expert before making a purchase.

Questions linger and answers remain elusive in Surfside, Fla., more than a month after the deadly collapse of the Champlain Towers South condo building. The local real estate community is still healing from the June 24 tragedy, which killed 98, including agent Maria Notkin, who was affiliated with Rotbart & Associates in Miami Beach, and her husband, Arnie. While grieving with victims’ families, real estate professionals in South Florida and across the country also are grappling with fresh concerns about the structural soundness of aging multifamily buildings. “Any agent showing high-rises going forward is going to look twice at what’s really going on with the integrity of the condo buildings that they’re selling in,” says Jorge Guerra, CRS, C2EX, broker-owner of RESF Real Estate in Coral Gables, Fla.

Structural engineers agree there isn’t a large-scale threat to condominiums nationwide. The U.S. follows International Building Code standards, and it's exceedingly rare for a residential tower to inexplicably collapse. That’s an important way to frame a conversation with buyers who express fear about the broader implications of the Surfside collapse, says Mike Clarkson, president of the Hilb Group of Florida, an insurance brokerage that represents condo associations in the state.

In fact, the Miami area is home to some of the most rigorous building codes in the country, a factor that has buoyed buyer confidence and sales in the local condo market in the aftermath of the Surfside disaster, according to Miami REALTORS® data. Condo sales in Miami-Dade County spiked 159.4% year over year in the two weeks immediately following the Champlain Towers South collapse, the data shows.

“We are proud that Miami-Dade County has what is probably the strongest building code in the nation, starting in 1994, and was the first county in Florida to enact the 40-year recertification in 1974,” Jennifer Wollmann, chair of the Miami REALTORS® Board of Directors, said in a statement.

Miami-Dade officials also have ordered a structural review of all buildings undergoing the 40-year safety recertification process, as Champlain Towers South was at the time of the collapse.

Real estate pros all over the U.S.especially those in coastal regions susceptible to erosion, a possible contributor to the Surfside collapse—may be fielding uncomfortable inquiries from condo buyers who are uneasy and want reassurance about a building’s condition before moving in. One thing you should never do is offer guidance or assessments beyond your area of expertise. Urge buyers who identify or suspect red flags, either of a structural or a financial nature, to consult with a qualified expert before making a purchase. South Florida pros share tips about helping clients get the right answers to ease their uncertainty about a condo purchase.

Maintenance records give clues but can be difficult to get. When assessing the quality and consistency of building upkeep, it’s more important than ever for agents to do their due diligence, Clarkson says. Ask the condo association for maintenance records, which should detail any work that’s been done to the property, “whether it be a new coat of paint in the lobby or a major repair,” says Ron Shuffield, president of Berkshire Hathaway HomeServices EWM Realty in Miami Beach, Fla.

However, depending on your state’s disclosure laws, buyers aren’t always guaranteed access to these documents. “Florida law requires property disclosures only on individual condo units,” says Natascha Tello, co-broker of The Tello Team at Keller Williams Central in Plantation, Fla. “There’s no law that requires disclosure on common areas.”

If a condo board refuses to release maintenance records to your client, ask the seller of the unit your buyer is purchasing to provide a copy. “One thing I’d be requesting is a copy of the building’s last inspection,” Guerra says. Moreover, take the time to review the minutes from recent condo board meetings to see if there are any current maintenance issues. If there are, see if there’s a timeline for when the work will be done. “Look at the history of the condo association’s special assessments,” Shuffield recommends. “Generally, the more special assessments there are, the worse the association is at budgeting for emergency repairs.”

Costly repairs speak volumes about the condo association’s reserves. “Some condo associations kick the can down the road and don’t set aside money for emergency repairs,” Tello says. “But the opposite is also true: Some associations have budgeted for every single thing that needs to be done.”

Condo associations should be putting at least 10% of their assessments toward reserves—though that’s on the low end, according to industry standards. How often the association is willing to spend money on building maintenance is a different story. “Look at how much money is set aside for each line item,” Shuffield says. “The more organized the reserves budget is, the better.”

Guerra recommends paying close attention to the cost and frequency of major repairs coming out of the condo association’s budget. “What I’m looking for when I review a reserves budget is whether the condo association has paid attention to the structural components of the building,” he says. “A new roof, for example, is a big-ticket item that condos need to set aside reserve funds for.”

Visible wear and tear in common areas can suggest larger problems. While cosmetic flaws don’t necessarily mean that a building has structural defects, they can be early red flags of a larger problem, says Guerra, who is also a general contractor. “A well-maintained building looks like a hotel,” he says. “The whole building looks pristine.” When touring a condo building with a buyer, look for signs of wear and tear in common areas, such as chipped paint, traces of leaks, warped walls, or sagging floors. If you spot any, ask the property manager or owner for an explanation.

Condo demand is rebounding from a slowdown during the COVID-19 pandemic, and you should be ready for inquiries from customers jolted by the Champlain Towers South collapse. Remember that managing emotions in any transaction is one of your primary skills. The more market and building-specific information you provide, the calmer and smoother the transaction will be, Shuffield notes. By doing upfront research, you will be able to address any concerns and ensure that your client’s interests will be served.