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Condo Safety Checks May Face Difficulties

New Fla. condo safety standards raise the bar for about 2M owners and set an extremely short timeline – and there may not be enough engineers to get the job done.

SARASOTA, Fla. – An estimated 2 million Florida residents live in buildings that, under new regulations adopted after last year’s Surfside tragedy, mandate detailed building safety inspections under tight deadlines, with a limited number of experts available to conduct them.

State figures show a minimum of 912,000 condo units meet the criteria for a required inspection, compared with about 50,000 engineers and architects, the only professionals authorized by the new law to do the reviews.

The deadline for condo associations to finish the inspections is at the end of 2024, but the reports can take two months to complete – and if issues are discovered, a second more time-consuming and costly study will be required. That one would have to start within a year.

Meanwhile, competition is tight for the professionals available for the work, as engineers and architects are in high demand from the construction industry; many of the professionals don’t specialize in inspecting condo properties. For example, several Sarasota engineering firms contacted by the Herald-Tribune said they do not perform condo inspections.

State Rep. Jason Pizzo, the South Florida Democrat who represents the area where the Surfside high-rise condo collapsed last year, has said the state doesn’t have enough engineers to handle the workload.

“Tell your nieces and daughters and sons to go study engineering,” Pizzo told the Associated Press after the bill became law in May.

But not everyone believes the task is impossible.

Some say engineers will move to Florida after seeing a business opportunity, while others point out that the more than two-year window provides time for state legislators to move the deadline back if it appears condo associations can’t meet the requirements.

Safety requirement

Inside the Sarasota city limits alone, officials estimate there are 190 condo properties that will need to complete a “phase one milestone inspection” by Dec. 31, 2024, under the new state law. In Venice, city officials estimate at least 100 properties and Sarasota County officials said they have identified 260 condos that will need to be inspected by the deadline.

The new law also allows county and municipal officials to fine condo associations that do not meet the deadlines.

Before the Miami-area condominium collapsed last summer, killing 98 people, only two counties in Florida required a structural inspection for the thousands of aging condo buildings in the Sunshine State. But after state legislators passed sweeping legislation in May, every condo that is three stories or taller will need to be evaluated for signs of “substantial structural deterioration” once the building reaches 30 years old – or 25 years if the building is within three miles of a coastline.

Those buildings will then also be required to be inspected again every 10 years.

Dan Lobeck, a Sarasota-area condo association lawyer who has represented hundreds of associations, said state lawmakers created an “impossible task with an impossible deadline.”

He compared it to fire sprinkler mandates passed in 2004. The state law that requires high-rise condo buildings to have the lifesaving equipment installed in older buildings has been delayed twice since it passed, with the new deadline to comply set for January 2024.

Lobeck said that after Surfside some appropriate requirement for structural integrity review of aging buildings may have been needed, “but they took that bill and ran with it and created this monster of a law.”

But others say the safety inspections are manageable. Steven J. Mainardi, a licensed professional engineer and principal at Delta Engineering, said that, while he’s seen two spikes in business – one after the Surfside condo collapse and another after the condo law was signed by the governor in May – he believes associations can meet the deadline if they start soon.

A typical inspection that would meet the new requirements takes between 30 to 60 days to complete and consists of a visual survey of both the habitable and inhabitable spaces, he said.

Each structure on the property that’s more than three stories will need its own report, he said. An engineer or architect will note any signs of deterioration like spalling of concrete, walls that could be buckling or other signs of significant distress, he said. If significant structural deterioration is discovered, they will note it in the report and the condo association will be required to complete a more rigorous inspection.

He said that he has a backlog of work and emphasized it would be important for condo associations to schedule the inspections sooner rather than later.

“We are actively looking for engineers and have been before the law was signed,” Mainardi said. “We have stepped up efforts.”

In one sign of the potential urgency, in October, the Downtown Sarasota Condominium Association plans to host a workshop titled “Are fines coming to your condo?” to raise awareness about some of the challenges that condo owners face as the deadline approaches.

Money issues

In addition, there are requirements to fully fund some building potential maintenance associated with the structural components of condo buildings, including paying for the replacement of big ticket items that could spell drastically higher fees for unit owners, especially if condo associations had been waiving reserve requirements.

Waiving reserve requirements had been allowed under the previous condo regulations, but the new legislation mandates keeping money on hand for potential repairs, and for accounting reviews to ensure the money is available.

Previously, these reviews were mainly checked to see if all of a condo association’s savings for various repairs was considered adequate. But the new law mandates adequate reserves be kept on hand to cover potential repairs in each specific category of work, or component, by the end of 2024, said Patricia Staebler, a Sarasota-area appraiser with more than 20 years of experience in completing reserve fund studies for condos.

Those funds also could not be used for any other purpose.

“We don’t do this in real life,” she said of approaches to repairs. “Our household budgets are pooled and we pull out what we need.”

She said the requirements could require much higher condo association fees, perhaps four times as much, to get enough money in reserve. “It will be devastating for condo owners in the state of Florida,” Staebler said.

More fiscal reviews will be required to ensure the funds are being handled properly. To improve assurances of condos’ integrity, the studies will cover components like the roof, load-bearing walls and other primary structural aspects, floors, foundation, fireproofing and fire protection systems, plumbing, electrical systems, waterproofing and exterior painting, windows and any other item that would cost more than $10,000 to replace.

The requirement could be hard for lower income condo associations that have waived reserve funding requirements for years.

“If it’s not a well-funded association, it will be dramatic,” she said.

Making the grade

John Mercer, president of the Francis Carlton Condominium condo association, said his condo board anticipated new legislation after Surfside and contacted an engineer in 2021.

“It was obvious there was going to be something,” he said of the prospect of inspections.

The Francis Carlton Condominium has 21 units in three-stories at 1221 N. Palm Ave. in Sarasota, built in 1924. It may be the first in the state to have met the inspection requirement.

Mercer said the condominium benefitted from coincidental timing and foresight.

The association began the search for an engineering firm in August 2021, as the condo board worried it might be hard to get an engineer. There was some concern that the smaller complex might have trouble getting the work done if it had to compete with larger condos for an engineer once new legislation passed.

The condo board felt “there would be a scramble by all affected condominiums to hire structural engineering firms – and that we might well have difficulty in finding one to work with us,” Mercer wrote in an email. “So we jumped the gun, and started looking in August last year – and were very fortunate to sign up a major, highly-regarded structural engineering firm, Karins Engineering Group.”

The engineering report that’s dated June 3 says the “Frances Carlton does not appear to have any substantial structural deterioration,” and that the report met the state inspection requirement.

While he and others in the Frances Carlton can breathe a sigh of relief, other condo residents may just be coming to grips with the challenges ahead.

“It’s a new world now in Florida for condominium maintenance funding,” Mercer said.

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