Leaky Condos – Lessons from British Columbia – A Few Things Every Property Manager Should Know

As promised in my January 25, 2014 post – the following is an article I wrote that was originally published in the Association of Condominium Managers of Ontario’s (ACMO) CM Magazine in 2009:

I’m a litigation lawyer and practice primarily in the area of construction law.  In particular, I seem to have a natural affinity for construction deficiency claims – I like them and they like me.  Not only do deficiency claims usually have complex and interesting factual and legal issues, they are often meaningful for the parties involved.  This makes for satisfying legal work.

I grew up in Kitchener, Ontario but packed up in 1993 and headed out west to go to school in Vancouver.  I eventually ended up going to law school and practicing law at a large Vancouver law firm where I joined that firm’s Construction Law Practice Group in early 2002 to help with the incredible workload that the “leaky condo crisis” had generated.  Until returning to Ontario in 2008, I worked on numerous files arising from leaky buildings, representing primarily condominium owners, but also single-family home owners, a large building product manufacturer, and residential developers.

Most people, certainly in condominium management circles, have some degree of awareness and understanding about British Columbia’s “leaky condos”.  It was a real phenomenon and socio-economic crisis that had a profound and lasting impact on the lives of tens of thousands of homeowners and the practices of builders, developers, architects, and municipal inspectors.  To get a sense of the magnitude of the effect and fall-out, one only need consider that it resulted in the financial collapse of B.C.’s provincial new home warranty provider of the day, a significant re-writing of parts of the B.C. Building Code, and an international renaissance in building envelope science.

I should say at the outset that I don’t think for a minute that Ontario is likely to experience a leaky condo experience anything akin in magnitude to that in B.C. – the climate is different, there’s less moisture here and warmer drying periods, and the architecture is somewhat different.  That said, buildings that suffer water ingress are not by any means a uniquely coastal phenomenon and Ontario’s heavy seasonal (and often wind-driven) rains, the rapid rise in multi-unit residential construction in Ontario and late-coming changes to the Ontario Building Code (approximately eight years behind those in the B.C. Building Code), certainly create the possibility.

While not everyone will be genuinely interested in the “leaky condo” story, what is, in my view, of utmost importance is that people – homeowners, property managers, builders, and designers – heed the lessons that were learned in B.C. as a result of the experience.  For homeowners, property managers, and condominium boards, the most important of these lessons is recognizing the early signs of a problem and acting on them.  This article is not intended to provide legal advice and neither is it intended to be a comprehensive playbook or checklist – what it is intended to do is to offer a few of the suggestions that I wished over the years I had been able to provide to owner/manager clients who, unfortunately, didn’t seek advice (legal, engineering, etc.) until long after the problem had been discovered.

Most often, the early signs of a “leaky condo” are first evident to the owners of individual units in the building.  These owners will report wet carpets, water on window sills, drywall or ceiling staining, or similar problems to the condominium board or the management company.  Sometimes these reports will begin very shortly after a new building is occupied and other times the reports won’t start until years after a building was constructed.  From a legal point of view, it is critical that those involved in the management of the building take these reports seriously and act on them quickly.

Property managers are almost always heavily involved in both the investigation of construction deficiencies and the management of the remediation work.  Similarly, if the condominium corporation votes to raise funds and pursue cost recovery litigation, the property manager will almost always serve as the primary liaison between legal counsel and the condominium’s board of directors.  Given these realities, there are a few things that every property manager should consider and keep in the back of his or her head to be well positioned to both identify issues and to respond effectively and appropriately in the face of the discovery of a design or construction deficiency.

  1. Even without signs of leaks, for new buildings, one of the best things a condominium’s management can do is to retain a building science professional (generally an architect or an engineer) to conduct an investigative building envelope assessment of the subject building within the first year of the Tarion warranty coverage.  If the investigating expert discovers Building Code violations, substandard workmanship in the building envelope construction, or significant deviations from building manufacturer’s details, specifications, and installation instructions, these should be reported to Tarion right away so that Tarion can assess whether warranty coverage applies.  While incurring the cost of a building envelope assessment on a new building can be a hard sell to the owners, taking this pro-active and preventative measure will be some of the best money the condominium corporation ever spends if a serious problem is discovered.
  2. Even if a building is not new and there’s no warranty coverage, bringing in an expert to assess the construction and condition of the building envelope can be a good investment.  If a major problem is discovered, the condominium corporation can start budgeting to carry out repair work and consult with a lawyer to see whether legal action is warranted. If no major problems are discovered, the consultant will be able to provide advice with respect to required maintenance and identify any areas that should be monitored.
  3. Regardless of whether it is a newer or an older building being assessed, encourage the condominium board to hire a premier building science firm to carry out the investigation.  First, the old adage that “you get what you pay for” often holds true in this case.  Second, the preliminary assessment may be one of the most important pieces of evidence if litigation later follows and premier building envelope consultants will generally be better expert witnesses than consultants with less experience or weaker qualifications.
  4. Educate owners within the building about what to look for and set up a protocol for reporting problems.  This suggestion may sound a little pedestrian but you’d be surprised how many times I’ve seen unit owners wait months or years before reporting the problem and acting upon it.  A necessary component to this suggestion is that the management (the condo board, the property manager, etc) needs to follow up with these reports, investigate the causes, and watch for patterns (i.e. leaks or moisture at the balcony doors of more than a couple of units may indicate a defective sliding door design or installation, a membrane problem, or slope deficiency that might affect most or all units in the complex).
  5. Establish a system of inspecting and maintaining the exterior of the building. While a window and a wall assembly might be reasonably expected to last for 20-30 years (or much more), caulking and other seals generally are not.  One excellent building envelope consultant that I worked with often in Vancouver told me that, ideally, caulking should be inspected every 1-2 years and completely replaced every few years.  If a building has systemic water ingress problems and significant design or construction flaws, this usual and normal maintenance won’t likely solve the problem.  However, if a building is not maintained, owners can bet their bottom dollar that the defendants in their cost recovery claim are going to raise a lack of maintenance as a defence (contributory negligence) to the claim.
  6. One of the most important things to do following the discovery of a problem is to consult legal counsel quickly.  Every Province has its own legislation that governs the timeframe within which a would-be Plaintiff must start its lawsuit.  In Ontario, the current legislation requires that a lawsuit be commenced within 2 years of the event giving rise to the claim.  It’s actually much more complicated than this – there is a huge body of law surrounding when that 2 year clock begins to tick – but many otherwise strong claims have been defeated because a Plaintiff failed to commence a claim in time.  This is a heartbreaking way to lose the right to pursue compensation for repairs.  Bottom line: Err on the side of caution and act quickly.
  7. Keep good records (and store them in an organized file) with respect to building envelope maintenance, reports of water ingress, any investigations undertaken, discussions (i.e. meeting minutes) and communications (i.e. emails, letters, etc.) on the subject, and financials.  If a problem arises and if litigation becomes likely, not only will the condominium corporation’s lawyer love management for having done this, the condominium corporation will likely save considerable money in legal fees if the lawyer doesn’t have to comb through dozens of files and thousands of documents looking for and sorting the relevant documents.
  8. If there is a suspected problem with the building envelope, take steps to find out the identities of all of the players involved in the construction of the building in question.  Some of this information can be obtained from the condominium’s description documents and the contracts of purchase and sale. However, often the best source is in the planning and building department file of the municipal authority having jurisdiction over building permits and approvals and such. A bit of advance notice to the good staff at the planning and building department and a half an hour at City Hall will usually net a lot of good information.  If a lawyer is retained, he or she can take care of this as well but can better “hit the ground running” if some of this information is already known.  This can also save valuable time if limitation periods are an issue.

At the end of the day, the central theme of these few suggestions is to monitor and investigate, maintain, and to seek advice promptly if problems are discovered. Another important point to take away is that, if owners fail to properly and diligently maintain their buildings over time and act quickly if problems emerge, they will, to varying degrees, risk having to absorb or share in the blame that might have otherwise been borne by the developers, designers, builders, trades, and municipalities that designed, built, and approved the construction of the building.

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Leaky condos – delayed investigation, assessment, and remediation can have costly consequences

TarpsA recent article in the Ottawa Citizen, $15.3M repair estimate leaves owners of Ottawa high-rise condo in shock, written by Hugh Adami, highlights the need for condominium corporations (the boards and ownership as a whole) to take non-localized deficiencies (in this case, water ingress) seriously and to investigate and assess them early.

If the building envelope has design and/or construction defects requiring extensive repairs, early investigation, assessment, and action may or may not have a dramatic effect on the remediation costs – the defect(s) have to be corrected regardless but early intervention can greatly reduce the repairs required to remove/replace damage (rust, rot, mould, etc) caused by the water.

However, what prompt investigation, assessment, and remediation will do is:

  1. reduce the chance that the Limitations Act, 2002 will become a bar to a lawsuit to recover remediation costs from those responsible for the defective design and/or construction; and
  2. limit the applicability and effectiveness of a defence that the condo corporation failed to mitigate its losses by stopping the damage caused by the intruding water.

In coming days I will post an article I wrote on this subject a few years ago (published in the Association of Condominium Managers of Ontario’s (ACMO) CM Magazine in 2009) but every bit as important and applicable today.

Top 10 (or 11) Suggestions for Homeowners Considering a Renovation or Residential Construction Project

For most people, long gone are the days where a house is purchased in early adulthood and is lived in, virtually unchanged, for 20, 30, even 40, years.  We are, more and more, a society and culture that encourages “upgrading” and “improvement”.  Many of us will, at some point, hire a contractor to carry out some kind of construction project – whether for a small bathroom renovation all the way up to a large six figure renovation.

There are a lot of fantastic contractors and builders out there that do excellent work and this article is, in no way, a slag on contractors generally.  Unfortunately, when trying to tell the good from the bad, one thing you can count on is that they will all – good ones and bad ones – tell you how skilled, professional, and “detail” and “quality” oriented they are.  However, another thing you can count on is that, when it’s your home and hard earned money is at risk, a two month delay, a 30% or 40% budget overrun, or an un-level floor/poor paint job/etc. (you get the idea), will test your anger management limits.  If the contractor then refuses to acknowledge the problem and stops communicating with you, you’ll quickly see those limits as little dots in your rear-view mirror.

Seasoned and experienced owners or developers undertaking large construction projects or working in new construction usually take steps to get the proper “legalities” taken care of – they negotiate contracts that are either standard form or are drafted by their lawyers, they hire consultants to oversee and review the work as it progresses, they make sure they are complying (more or less) with the Construction Lien Act, and so on. However, on smaller projects and renovations, and for less experienced homeowners, these safeguards and up-front precautions are far too often overlooked and it amazes me how little legal protection and planning many people seek even when there are tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars at stake.

Sometimes a project goes well and the homeowner gets what he or she bargained for without any conflict. These are the happy stories. However, too often, homeowners are getting into costly disputes with their contractors and either get a poor finished product or spend a small fortune in legal fees fighting for what they feel they are entitled to.  Fortunately, while construction can be a risky game for the uninformed and uninitiated, there are some things that homeowners can do to reduce the chances of things going sideways and improve their position if they do.

If you are a homeowner and are considering embarking on a renovation or construction project, the following are a few things you should think about before you sign on the so-called “dotted line”:

  1. Budget some amount of money for legal advice and assistance when you are in the early stages of planning your project.  The amount of your budget will probably depend on the overall cost and nature of the project.  You should consider this as part of the actual construction budget. If things go well (the happy story) and some of this money doesn’t get used,  great!  However, if things begin to capsize (the unhappy story), you’ll be glad to have the funds available to deal with the problem.
  2. Research the contractor(s) you are considering using.  The internet is a great resource for this (Google, chat rooms, the Better Business Bureau, etc) and your lawyer can also carry out searches to investigate whether there has been past litigation involving the contractor. Ask the contractor for two or three references for previous clients and call them (before agreeing to anything) – if people were unhappy, they’ll be eager to tell you about it.  If the contractor can’t (or won’t) give you a reference, run, don’t walk.
  3. Make sure that you have a well drafted contract in place that clearly sets out each party’s rights and obligations. There are many different project delivery methods available (fixed price, cost plus, project management, and so on), each with its own advantages and disadvantages. Regardless of which delivery method you choose, it should be clear as to who does what and when and for how much, and what the consequences will be if things that have been agreed upon do not happen.  Note: “well drafted” does not necessarily mean “long” or “complicated”.  Depending on the type and size of the project, an adequate contract might only be a page or two long.
  4. Consider having a schedule to the contract (unless it is set out right in the body of the contract) that clearly expresses exactly what is (and is not) included in the price. Too frequently, disputes arise because the homeowner thinks she is getting, for example, premium quality paint in an eggshell finish and the contractor plans on using standard builders’ grade flat paint.  If the contract is silent on this, the contractor is going to charge the homeowner more to use the paint that she thought was included.  A contract that sets these sorts of things out in detail can avoid this very, very common problem.
  5. Once you have that well drafted contract in place, follow it!  If a dispute arises, it is more difficult to earn the sympathy of the court if the other party is not the only one that has not abided by the agreed terms.  More than one lawsuit has been lost because both parties completely disregarded the terms of their contract.
  6. Get some advice on your rights and obligations under the Construction Lien Act. In many cases, knowing (and following) what the Construction Lien Act says about what you have to do (i.e. retaining a proper holdback for the appropriate amount of time and performing some due diligence searches before releasing the money) can save you from significant liability at the end of the project if workers, suppliers, or trades are not paid (whether directly by you or by your contractor).  This legislation is there, in part, to protect owners.
  7. If the size of the project warrants it, either work some terms into your contract(s) for third party reviews of the work and spend a bit of money on a consultant (i.e. an architect or engineer) to do periodic reviews to point out any deviations from the specifications, design, or the Building Code, or hire someone to do this outside the contract but for your own benefit and protection.  If a dispute arises, this third party can provide valuable evidence. If no dispute arises, the third party reviews can provide you with almost as valuable peace of mind
  8. Make sure that either you or the contractor is taking care of whatever permits are required. building permits add to the cost and “red tape” of the project but for many projects they are required and, for the most part, they are there to protect you. That said, do not assume that the building permit or inspection process will act as a general quality control for the work being done.  Inspectors are generally only inspecting for general compliance with the Building Code’s minimum standards – not to ensure that everything is being done properly or in accordance with the contract. There’s a big difference.
  9. Consider whether you want a dispute resolution clause in your contract. Sometimes there is no such clause, sometimes there is a mandatory mediation or arbitration clause, and sometimes there is a clause making mediation or arbitration optional. I am generally not a fan of mandatory arbitration clauses for smaller projects primarily because of the potential cost involved, but there are times where it might be appropriate. This is something to raise and discuss with your lawyer.
  10. If you have a lawyer retained from the outset of the project, he or she will be familiar with the project and contract and, in the event that a dispute arises, will be able to jump right in without nearly as much briefing to assist in resolving things. Let your lawyer know if you sense that a problem might be on the horizon (i.e. if your contractor seems to be falling behind, the materials on site don’t match what you requested, etc). Sometimes an early letter can help keep things on the rails when they might otherwise go off (potentially saving you a lot of money if a full-scale dispute can be averted).
  11. Most construction litigation is won and lost on the “paper trail”.  Keep a very accurate and complete project file where you keep everything to do with the project (i.e. contracts, drawings, quotes, documents supporting agreed changes to the scope of work, etc). Where things are discussed orally on site or in meetings, confirm what was discussed or agreed in writing (the speed and ease of e-mail makes this a no brainer). Keeping a comprehensive project file will:
    • keep you better organized in dealing with the contractor(s) and other involved parties throughout the project (never a bad thing);
    • only take a little more time than not doing it; and
    • if a dispute arises during the course of the project and arbitration or litigation is required, possibly mean the difference between winning or losing the dispute and will invariably save you money in legal fees because your lawyer will have better evidence to work with.

While I strongly believe that the above suggestions can go a long way toward reducing problems and putting you in a better position if problems arise, they will not guarantee you 100% protection.  Even where sophisticated owners and contractors make heroic efforts to protect themselves and negotiate detailed contracts believed by everyone to be clear and  bullet-proof, long and costly litigation can still occur.

Taking the time to follow the above suggestions and, perhaps, investing couple of thousand dollars for legal advice and services at the outset of a smaller project may be a hard pill to swallow for the eternal optimist who can’t imagine that a serious dispute could arise on his or her project (“My contractor seems like a really nice guy. I trust him.”), but most clients that I’ve represented over the years, after things went wrong and where they didn’t exercise this sort of up front effort and diligence, would almost certainly say that, with the benefit of hindsight, they would have done things differently.