Home & Garden Columns

About the House: The Real Deal About Condo Inspection

By Matt Cantor
Friday January 05, 2007

I’m always afraid to start talking about the practice of home inspection, fearing that it will seem self-serving but hey, I can serve myself! Actually, I think this sort of discussion is valuable and I wouldn’t try to waste your time if it weren’t. I never fail in my awareness that a column becomes birdcage liner pretty darned quick when it doesn’t provide something of worth. 

About 20 percent of the inspections I do involve condominiums and inspecting condos always involves a frustrating and complex problem. What do we do about the other parts of the property that my client isn’t actually buying (or are they?). The tricky thing about this particular nut and the cracking thereof is that while my client may be presented with the other parts as being completely protected against all evil and nastiness, it ain’t necessarily going to work out that way. 

Let me start out by saying when I will do the inside of a condo and be satisfied with this as a complete process. First, I want the condo to be one of many. Let’s say more than 30 and never less than eight as an absolute minimum. Why, you may rightly ask (you’re so smart)? Because as a condo owner, you will generally be financially responsible for a percentage of all maintenance, repair and improvement costs and if you are buying a condo that has only four units, that’s usually going to be 25 percent (although uneven percentage splits are not uncommon). 

Twenty-five percent of the cost of a foundation, a roof or a major pest clearance can still be a great deal of money and it might be nice to have some sense of what’s coming at the point at which you buy. 

On the other hand, if you’re buying into a building or community of 100 units, a 1 percent responsibility isn’t all that great, although a roof job for a very large building can be a whole lot of money. 

So it’s important to consider, in choosing to inspect (or to not inspect) the other parts of the building, whether you may end up bearing some of the costs for a range of repairs that were never discussed during the sale process. 

Let me take a second to clarify, in brief, what I inspect when I do solely the interior of a condo. This is the standard form, by the way, and your realtor may be accustomed to this as the common method (although they may be quite open to an alternative). An interior inspection inspects only those parts that are inside the unit and include the kitchen, baths, usually one interior electrical panel, the force of the shower, the loose toilet, a cracked or stuck window, and so forth. 

The parts that aren’t included are the roof, the exterior of the building, the foundation, the main electrical, water and gas connections, the site, the crawlspace (is it wet?), etc. The unseen items can make up quite a list, although the Home Owner’s Association (HOA) is, as a general rule, financially responsible for all of these components. 

Another reason to inspect all of the building, as opposed to the interior of your unit alone, is that this particular building happens to be older. Now old, in and of itself, isn’t a bad thing. I’m old and I’m great, but old buildings have problems that modern buildings don’t. They’re more apt to be damaged in an earthquake, unless retrofitting has already been done and done well (I see a lot of poorly done retrofits). They’re more likely to have unsafe wiring, worn out heating equipment and bad roofing.  

By the way, the age of a building is also an issue that I’d use as a basis for whether I’d be willing to do an “interior-only” inspection. 

While you may be only a 3 percent owner in your building, this array of issues might still be important to you (and should be). This isn’t to say that the HOA won’t pay for the things it’s responsible for, but the first thing you, as a buyer, should be determining is: what’s the state of the building I’m considering buying into and putting my body inside of. Is it safe? Will it need major upgrading? Will I have to push to get 25 other folks to bring it up to a reasonable state of safety?  

You may have great success in all these things but it’s fair and reasonable to know that this is what’s on the slate for you to do as opposed to moving into a building that has a clean bill of health and will prove fairly trouble free.  

I don’t feel as though it’s my job to dissuade a buyer from taking on a range of real or potential problems. The property might be a terrific deal and just right for them, all troubles included. The important thing is that the buyer have the chance to see what they’re taking on. Although it may appear that condo ownership is trouble-free, it’s not quite so. I think condo ownership is a great choice for many but it’s not absolution from all care of the home. 

While I like to have the chance to inspect the rest of the building, I must admit that one of the things that will ease my concerns about building issues in general is the presence of a nice big cash reserve held by the HOA. Most HOAs maintain several thousand dollars (obviously varying hugely with size and condition) for the repair and maintenance of the building.  

Some HOAs have very little in reserve and this should always be cause for some discussion regarding the “what-ifs” of home ownership. What if there’s a fire? What is unit C floods unit A because a hose burst on Ms. Friedan’s washing machine and ruined Ms. Steinem’s nice oak floors below? These are the sorts of things that reserves are designed to pay for in addition to the more obvious roofing, painting and so forth. As any homeowner will tell you, there’s always something to pay for when you own a house (or 10 units). 

Knowledge is power and it’s always nice to have a little more power, especially when you’re making a large investment. If you’re buying a condo, an inspection is a darned good idea and spending a bit more to see what the building is like may be wise too. 

Talk to your home inspector when you’re getting ready to do this. Chances are that for an extra hundred or two, you can find out what sort of building you’re moving into. Remember, that other stuff can matter a lot. 


Got a question about home repairs and inspections? Send them to Matt Cantor at mgcantor@pacbell.net.