After the fire: a reality check for condo owners

By Deborah Goonan, Independent American Communities

Multifamily housing may seem to provide a low-maintenance lifestyle, an a more affordable alternative to owning or leasing a detached single family home.

But, in fact, attached housing can cost more to maintain and insure in the long run. Plus, attached walls and stacked housing units create increased risk of fire, resulting in property damage, personal injury, and even fatalities.

Condominium and homeowner associations present a higher risk for residents than traditional apartment communities, mainly because of the multiple owner model of management in the association.

In an association-governed community, each apartment-style or townhouse unit is individually owned and maintained, while the condo or homeowners’ association maintains common infrastructure such as:

  • electrical lines that distribute power to more than one unit
  • telecommunication wiring
  • plumbing and sewage that serves more than one unit
  • common hallways, stairways, lobbies
  • shared amenities such as swimming pools, exercise rooms, moving viewing rooms, roof decks, and the like
  • elevators in high rise buildings
  • parking garages, and/or shared driveways

The physical and governance structure of owned multifamily housing creates the need for several layers of insurance coverage. The association must carry adequate insurance to repair and replace property that is owned or managed in common, while each unit owner is responsible for carrying insurance to repair and replace interior fixtures, finishes, and belongings. Townhouse owners may also maintain responsibility for insuring exterior surfaces such as siding, windows, doors, roofs, decks, and porches.

At the same time, individual owners rely on the association’s board — with or without guidance of a management agent — to maintain common infrastructure in order to ensure the safety of its residents. But sometimes a condominium or homeowners’ association fails to maintain fire safety systems, and, incredibly, some older housing communities lack fire sprinkler systems, fire escape routes for upper floor residents, and even functional smoke alarms.

The results can be tragic.

Some recent reports follow.

Firefighter fire graphic
( free image)

Even after a fire in 2006, this Illinois condo association didn’t install fire sprinklers.

Condo associations often object to the high cost of retrofitting older buildings with fire sprinklers, firewalls, and other safety measures. And state Legislatures, under pressure from community association and Realtor lobbies, have repeatedly avoided a hard mandate for retrofitting fire safety system, even in the case of a complete rebuild.

The end result in Prospect Heights: a second fire that could have been prevented.

Could Prospect Heights condo fire have been prevented? Why it spread so quickly

Jake Griffin, Marni Pyke, The Daily Herald, Updated 7/22/2018 8:35 AM

When firefighters were alerted to a fire at one of the 16 buildings that make up the River Trails Condominium complex in Prospect Heights Wednesday afternoon, they knew the blaze could quickly get out of hand.

And it did, gutting three buildings and leaving dozens homeless in just hours…

See also:

Prospect Heights condo fire caused $10 million in damage (Daily Herald)

The complexities of rebuilding

Many owners of association-governed condos and townhouses underestimate how long it takes and how much it cost to rebuild following the destruction of a fire. It’s not uncommon for the process to stretch out over several years.

Quite often, insurance reimbursements fall short of the actual cost to rebuild. Mismanagement by the condo association board leads to inefficiencies in hiring qualified contractors, and paying a fair market price for services.

In the following example from Vermont, the association is involved in lawsuits with its insurer and contractor. A receiver was recently appointed by the court, when  judge concluded the board was incapable of managing the association’s affairs.

Mountainside Condos still unfinished

Written by Lisa Loomis, Valley Reporter.

A receiver has been appointed to handle completing the reconstruction of 36 Mountainside Condominium units that burned in February 2014….

The following report reminds owners that, during the long process of rebuilding, the mortgage, taxes, insurance, and condo association assessments must be paid, in addition to the cost of temporary housing.

Insurance may not cover the cost of rent beyond 6 months to a years, even though it can take much longer than that to rebuild the condo or townhouse.

Plumwood Terrace Tenants Upset Over Lack of Action After Fire That Destroyed Building (Ben Oldach WHO-TV)



More fire safety reports:

One of the reasons many condo associations are going smoke-free:

Tigard condo damaged by fire that started from improper disposal of cigarettes
Fox 12 Oregon (July 27, 2018)

Florida has kicked the can down the road on sprinkler retrofitting for many years. But this year, the Governor has set a hard deadline for compliance with fire safety regulations. It will mean substantial special assessments for condo owners, some of whom may be forced to sell their units due to the additional cost.

Thousands of high rise condo owners in South Florida must comply with fire safety in buildings (WPTV)


A reminder that fires can also occur in very small condo buildings. Fortunately, this building was equipped with fire alarms.

3-alarm fire rips through Torrington condominium Fox 61 (CT) July 21, 2018

Here’s an example of fire and smoke damage in a large city high-rise, resulting in a lawsuit. Unfortunately, the fire resulted in one fatality and smoke damage to several units. There was no smoke alarm installed in the decedent’s condo unit.

Although only a few units were damaged, there are no fire sprinklers in the building.

According to the report, Donald J. Trump “in the 1990s … worked aggressively to thwart a law that would have required all existing skyscrapers to be retrofitted with sprinklers. According to a January 1999 article in the New York Post, Trump personally ‘called a dozen [city] council members to lobby against sprinklers.’”

Trump Tower Condo Board Sues Over Fatal Fire Damage
Habitat Magazine, July 27, 2018

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