By Deborah Goonan, Independent American Communities
I communicate with a lot of people in the U.S. and Canada that own condos, and many of these residents are over the age of 55. They often tell me they purchased their condos to simplify their retirement years and live more affordably. Others purchased their condos as vacation homes, then began living in them seasonally or year-round following retirement.
There’s no question about it. The real estate industry sells condo buyers on the utopian notion of a carefree, low-maintenance lifestyle at an affordable price. If you doubt my observations, turn on HGTV when they are running back-to-back episodes of House Hunters and its numerous spin-offs. Or attend several open houses.
Today’s featured link to a report in the Boston Globe provides yet another reality check on condo living, guaranteed to burst a condo buyer’s bubble.
SEAN P. MURPHY | THE FINE PRINT
Broken elevator taxes patience, and knee, of condo owner and there’s no end in sight
By Sean P. Murphy GLOBE STAFF SEPTEMBER 25, 2017
Since her building’s elevator broke down in August, 85-year-old Doris Toohey has had to climb 56 steps to get to her fourth-floor condo. It’s so exhausting that she sometimes takes a break on her way up by sitting on one of the plastic chairs set up on each floor to let seniors rest.
“Especially when I have groceries, it’s so tiring,” she said.
The shutdown of the elevator, due to mechanical failure, is bad enough for Toohey, who is constantly up and down the stairs on an arthritic knee to go to the store, doctor’s appointments, church, and to walk her beloved Yorkshire terrier, Bonnie.
But what really floored her was the recent announcement that the elevator will remain out of service for about six months, maybe longer.
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“I don’t think I can last six months living like this,” she told me at her kitchen table. “They said, ‘You’re on your own,’ more or less.”
The situation is complicated by the fact that Toohey lives in a 72-unit condo, not an apartment building. If she were a tenant, she could report her landlord to city officials, perhaps Inspectional Services or elder affairs.
But in her case, there is no landlord, just 72 owners.
The building is run by an outside company hired by the board of trustees.
Incredibly, as a condo owner, there is absolutely no guarantee that the community features you fell in love with prior to your purchase will remain in good, functional condition in 10 years, or even 6 months, after you have signed the mortgage papers or sunk your retirement savings on your dream home.
You might think that the condo association is legally obligated to keep its elevator in working order. But, for all practical purposes, there is no way for condo owners to force their association to repair or replace anything, especially if the money is not available.
To make matters worse, if you were to take the matter to court, you would essentially be suing yourself and your neighbors, who all foot the bill for legal expenses and insurance policies of the condo association.
Condo and planned community (HOA) owners write to me every week, telling me that they had to close their community pool or tennis courts or club house, because almost no one uses them anymore, and they require expensive repairs.
I have also extensively covered the fate of many defunct or struggling golf course and Country Club communities. Homeowners who paid a premium for golf course views are now living adjacent to overgrown meadows or dry turf prone to wild fires. Or developers are building townhouses on the former greens.
And when a condominium approaches 30-50 years old, all the major working parts need to be replaced: heating and air conditioning systems, plumbing, electrical wiring, roofing, siding, windows, wood decks, and, of course, elevators.
Unfortunately, the vast majority of so-called “affordable” condo associations fail to reserve a sufficient portion of monthly assessments over time to pay for these predictable repairs.
According to the Boston Globe “Fine Print,” Towne Lyne Condominiums are now roughly 50 years old. The elevator is obsolete, and the association says it has to special order parts for repair.
Condo owners have been paying $400 per month for assessments and maintenance fees. With 72 units, that’s about $28,800 per year.
It’s likely that a portion of the $400 monthly assessment is used to pay utility bills, other routine cleaning and maintenance of building and grounds, and the purchase of insurance policies.
But according to one report in the NY Cooperator, when parts are no longer available for a 25-30 year old elevator, a replacement is the only realistic option, at a cost exceeding $125,000.
The reader is left wondering if Towne Lyne Condo Association has that kind of money in reserves, especially since owners report that they have had to pay special assessments in the past.
And what is the story behind the history of vandalism in the elevator room? A condo owner cannot control the bad behavior of a neighbor, but almost always ends up paying for it.
There are no easy solutions here. Because each condo unit is individually owned, Doris Toohey cannot be relocated to a ground floor unit, as might be possible in an apartment community (assuming an available vacancy), public housing, or, as not-so-tactfully suggested, assisted living.
It remains to be seen whether Towne Lyne Condo Association is able to repair or replace their broken elevator in 6 months, or if there will ever be another working elevator in Toohey’s buiding.