Featuring real estate articles and information to help real estate buyers and sellers. The Nest features writings from Georges Benoliel and other real estate professionals. Georges is the Co-Founder of NestApple and has been working as an active real estate investor for over a decade.
On June 24, 2021, a massive tragedy happened. A Surfside, Miami high-rise condominium tower partially collapsed. Strangely, the building was almost entirely leveled. Men, women, and children were under the rubbles. Search efforts continued for well over a week before rescuers declared any remaining people a lost cause in this Miami condo collapse. At the time of the writing of this article, the death toll climbed up to 95 people, including an older couple and a 1-year-old baby. This Miami Beach condo building collapse was a tragedy.
No one ever expects to hear about a building collapse, especially in the United States. However, those who were insiders claimed that it was bound to happen. According to multiple people who helped run the condo, there were plenty of warning signs that something was terribly wrong. There were even meetings that were held discussing the need to overhaul the condo.
Despite the warning signs, the HOA that ran the condominium nixed improvements that would have saved dozens of lives. When the Miami condo building collapse happened, it became clear that those repairs were essential. This should be a teaching moment among condo buyers. Here’s what everyone should take away from this tragic outcome…
According to people who were in the condo, there were several visible problems with the condo tower. People noticed that their homes were filled with cracks along doorframes or near the ceiling. Some claimed that they also noticed structural damage near the support beams.
Despite the visible issues, people still moved in. This Miami building collapse could have been avoided. If you notice signs of structural problems in a condo, do not buy it. This is a sign that the condo needs renovations and that the HOA is actively ignoring it.
Co-ops and condos both have meetings to discuss major repairs. The organization gets to vote on whether maintenance rates will rise to cover those costs. No one looks forward to these meetings, but they have to happen.
During mandated meetings, the price tag that you hear may make you balk. Even so, it’s a cheap price to pay if it’ll save your life.
In the Seaside condo, some inspections revealed a repair cost total of $9 million. This equated to about $100,000 or so per resident. Most people balked and hoped to put them off. So they did.
Then, the structure gave out before they could actually fix anything.
Here’s the kicker that really stood out when people began to realize the damage. The firm that owned the Seaside tower, Champlain Towers, had meetings about the damage. In fact, the meeting notes that the firm had even mentioned “extreme structural damage.”
Building laws show that extreme structural damage means the building is legally unliveable. People should not have been living in the building at all. And yet, they were. This was an egregious problem that should have been addressed before the Miami condo building collapse.
People who read the community meeting minutes might have been able to move out before they were killed.
Nowhere in those documents was the damage labeled an “imminent danger.” If people saw that it was imminent, they would have been legally obligated to evacuate. Sadly, most building inspectors tend to avoid using the “imminent danger” phrase because of the extent of the damage that it alludes to.
Even so, any time that you hear about cracking concrete slabs or structural damage, it’s best to treat it as an imminent danger, when your building isn’t structurally sound, your ability to judge when the building will break fades.
As a result, it’s never a good thing to assume you can kick maintenance down the line.
To Champlain’s credit, they eventually tried to solve some of the many issues that plagued the Seaside tower. In June of 2020, Champlain Tower South hired Morabito Consultants to fix several significant problems in the roof. The problem was that the concrete repairs were not done yet. Worse, this was meant to be a 40-year recertification project.
Though the roof was prone to leaking, it was not what really needed repair. Owners should have addressed the concrete and structure damage first. And worse, it should have been done far earlier. This is yet another reason why delaying repairs should be a warning sign to potential buyers.
When building inspectors walked through the halls of the now-notorious Seaside condo, they saw problem after problem. It wasn’t just a leaky roof, nor was it even just the concrete that was breaking away. There were chipped paints, issues with the pool’s concrete, parking garage issues…the list went on and on.
If you want to buy a condo or join a co-op, pay attention to both the size and magnitude of the problems that the building had. The Seaside condo had dozens of issues. Few were ever addressed until it was too late. The fact that there were so many should have raised klaxons among residents.
Condos and co-ops are generally expected to remain in pristine condition simply because the HOA or owning company is hired to maintain them well. For the most part, this is an okay expectation to make. A typical condo or a regular co-op will have great amenities and a fleet of qualified people to maintain them.
Unfortunately, it’s condos like Champlain that tend to make the others look bad. There are a fair number of people who invest in condos just because they want a steady income and do not want to pay the maintenance needed.
This seems to be what happened with the condo owner here. Because there are bad apples like that, you can’t ever be too careful. Having a house inspector show up before purchase is smart.
The one thing that residents all noted about their lives in the condo building is that they were aware that they were living in a poorly maintained building. The lousy maintenance record might have seemed like a nuisance back in the day, but the truth is that the slapshot work eventually added up.
Don’t overlook a dirty condo center or cracked sidewalks in the community areas. They often belie bigger issues that get ignored too.
The Champlain South Tower was a quasi-luxury tower that often prided itself on keeping things affordable for its clients. Unfortunately, that bargain price tag came with a huge caveat. The reason why maintenance fees were so low was that they cut corners wherever possible.
This should remind people that price isn’t the only factor in real estate sales. You really have to ask what you’re getting for that money.
This level of neglect is an extreme case of corporate greed winning at the cost of innocent lives. While the residents may have had some level of control over the measures, the truth is that this was a case where minor problems were ignored until they were no longer minor. This meant that people should have been firmer with their company, but instead, they may have put too much trust in them to do the right thing.
Lawsuits are definitely going to happen now, but somehow, we’re sure that they will not be the only ones. Residents have the right to sue HOAs and landlords over unsafe conditions. Now that this has happened, it’s likely that we will see a spate of suits throughout the country.
Atorod Azizinamini, Director of Moss School of Construction, Infrastructure, and Sustainability at Florida International University said the investigation into the Champlain Towers South collapse would take time.
He said structural engineers would look at design plans, how the building was constructed, take samples of steel and concrete, look at signs of corrosion, the foundations, and if any unusual event took place before the collapse.
Once they have the information they can simulate different scenarios and pinpoint how the collapse took place, he said.
Federal investigators are at the site and working to find the cause of the collapse and ensure evidence is preserved. Debris is being taken to a large warehouse to be examined.
Earlier this year, the president of the condominium association warned residents that the damage in the parking area had got “significantly worse,” and repairs needed to the whole building had risen from US$9m to more than US$15m.
After several weeks of searching and waiting for news on victims from the Champlain Towers South condominium collapse in Surfside, South Florida, all 242 people have been accounted for.
Architects of the Champlain Towers South built it on a reclaimed wetland in 1981. Most blocks along the coast, and high-rise buildings elsewhere, are built on pile foundations, using columns of concrete and steel to transfer the load of the building into the ground. A short distance away is Champlain Towers North, built to an almost identical design.