The sudden collapse of a condo building in South Florida has many Americans worried about the safety of their own condos and apartments. But residents and buyers alike can take steps to ensure the building they inhabit is secure and not prone to such a disaster.
In late June, Champlain Towers South, a 12-story waterfront condo in the Miami suburb of Surfside collapsed overnight. So far 97 people are confirmed to have died in the collapse, with two people still unaccounted. The tragedy ranks among the deadliest building collapses in U.S. history.
Following the collapse, reports came to light indicating that engineers had warned that there was major structural damage at the building before the incident, though condo owners had been told otherwise. The engineer’s report came as part of the building’s efforts to be recertified 40 years after it was first constructed, as part of regulations that went into effect after Hurricane Andrew.
The tragedy has served as a wake-up call to condo owners across the country. Here is what condo residents and owners need to know when it comes to their buildings’ structural integrity.
Know what material the building is made of — and when it was constructed
Different methods of construction will display structural problems in different ways, said Mehrdad Sasani, an engineering professor at Northeastern University whose expertise is in concrete structures.
“Steel structures do not have the type of cracks that concrete structures have,” Sasani said.
A general rule of thumb is that taller buildings over 10 stories will be made of concrete or steel, while smaller buildings can be made of wood or brick-and-mortar structures. Looks can be deceiving here: Steel structures are often encased in concrete, and concrete buildings can have cosmetic masonry.
The age of the building can be a factor. In 1989, concrete standards, including “so-called structural integrity requirements,” changed, Sasani said. “So buildings constructed after 1989 are somewhat more resistant to progressive collapse than the ones before,” he said.
Regionally, building codes can change to require more guardrails to prevent against structural collapse. In Florida, for instance, building codes were revised in the wake of Hurricane Andrew to take into account the need for protection against severe tropical storms.
Look out for certain warning signs
In concrete buildings like the one that collapsed in Florida, there are a few signs to watch out for that could indicate major structural problems. Sasani breaks them down into three categories:
Crushing or crumbling of the concrete
Corrosion and deterioration of rebar
With cracks, one important feature to watch out for is the width. If a crack is wider than 15 thousandths of an inch (or 0.015 inches), then a professional should evaluate it, Sasani said. An inspector will then look to see how large the cracks are, where they are located and whether they are going at an angle.
As for rebar, any exposed metal that was once covered by concrete is cause for concern. Concrete buildings include metal reinforcement, and as that metal corrodes over time it can expand. That will cause the covering concrete to come off. A small spot where that rebar is exposed could be an indication of corrosion throughout the structure.
Even seemingly cosmetic issues can be a sign of larger problems. According to Canadian Home Inspection Services, when doors or windows don’t close properly, that could be one of the first warnings that there are problems with the building’s foundation. “If things are starting to go out-of-square with the property, it is likely due to a shifting foundation, which can lead to major wall breaks, separations and foundation failures,” the home inspection company noted.
The same is true of other small issues such as cracked tiles, wrinkled wallpaper or musty odors, which could be signs of foundation or plumbing issues.
The sheer presence of cracks alone, though, is not a sign that a structure is headed for failure, particularly in concrete buildings. Cracks can appear in partition walls throughout a building due flooring issues, rather than because of structural problems. In other words, don’t panic at the first sign of a crack.
“Cracking is part of the game,” said Sasani. “We don’t prevent cracks — we control cracks, so they are not wide open.”
Read up on the condo’s history
Knowing what past issues the condo has dealt with — and how the condo owners’ association dealt with them — can be illustrative for prospective buyers. Condo associations can provide buyers with inspection reports, engineering reports, notes from COA meetings, building certifications and information regarding the state of the condo’s finances.
If a condo is lacking in cash reserves, that could be a major red flag. Those reserves are collected through the association fees paid by unit owners, and that money is used to pay for repairs and replacements. If a condo doesn’t have enough in its reserves to cover that, it could be a sign that the building isn’t being properly maintained. It also could be a warning that the COA fees could rise after purchasing the unit.
Similarly, reading through the minutes of association meetings can provide insight into what unaddressed problems there are. Are upstairs neighbors complaining about leaks? Did someone’s car in the downstairs garage get damaged from a falling chunk of concrete? Again, these are the sorts of warning signs that could prove useful.
Don’t skimp on the home inspection
When purchasing a condo, an owner will have the option to decide between an interior-only inspection and a full inspection. In an interior-only inspection, the inspector only examines the unit itself, whereas a full inspection includes attics, crawl spaces, building exteriors, roofs, garages and other common spaces in a building.
With larger apartment buildings and condos, full inspections may not be feasible unfortunately, due to the limitations in what an inspector has access to.
“Full inspections are not as comprehensive as commercial inspections, but they will give you a good general sense of the overall condition of the building or buildings,” real estate brokerage Redfin
noted in a 2019 report. “You can then take the information gleaned from a full condo inspection as well as the disclosure you get from the HOA and try and assess the overall ‘health’ of the condo.”