Nothing can turn a good property investment into a nightmare faster than discovering serious code violations that require unplanned and expensive repairs. The trouble usually starts with tenant complaints. When tenant complaints are ignored or poorly managed with substandard repairs, these situations can quickly snowball into major code enforcement violations, fines, accidents, evacuations, loss of life, litigation and even criminal negligence.
The building codes are different in every town, city, county and state. They are living, breathing documents that continue to change as new materials, products and construction techniques continue to evolve. Other contributors to changes in building codes are more subtle, such as socially recognizing that people with special needs must have equitable access or the true consequences of natural disasters such as floods, tornadoes and earthquakes.
What To Watch Out For
What can you do as a building owner or manager to protect yourself from unnecessary or surprise code violations? The first step is to get professional help right way when you suspect a serious problem. Don’t be afraid to contact an engineering firm that specializes in structural or environmental problems. An early consultation can lead you to the most cost-effective solution and the avoidance of violations, fines and legal actions.
While you’ve probably owned or managed many buildings, expert engineers also have seen almost every code violation in the book and know how to resolve them successfully. Think of them as building doctors who can diagnose the severity of code issues and prescribe the best course of treatment to return your building to full health. Let’s look at three of the most common types of problems affecting building owners and management companies:
Foundation problems tend to occur when there are unstable soil conditions, excessive moisture or construction defects. Residential and commercial buildings, for example, when constructed in hill side areas can offer stunning views or make good use of otherwise marginal real estate, but care must be taken to employ proper soil stabilization techniques to avoid creep-age or sliding that affects the foundation and the whole structure.
Ignoring poor drainage or ponding is another problem that can be expensive to repair and more expensive the longer it is ignored. Some soil types, such as clays, form a natural barrier that prevents water from draining down and in severe cases there must be drainage accommodations to keep water away from the foundation.
Seismic retrofits are becoming increasingly a necessity in many areas as the potential consequences of severe earthquakes are better understood. In California, the history of earthquakes over the past 100-plus years has led to a complete re-vamping of the building codes, including requirements in many areas forcing the owners of even historic structures to implement seismic retrofitting.
Rust eats metal and poorly coated or weather exposed metal stairs or structural supports when improperly maintained can literally crumble away. Outside stair cases in multi-story apartment buildings are a particular concern in some areas where frequent attention must be paid to rust removal and repainting. When roof repairs needs are ignored, water entering commercial buildings from roof leaks can wreak havoc with metal supports or trusses.
Concrete like any other material ages and will at some point begin to show its age in sometimes a dangerous manner. Not long ago, one of the worst examples that I’ve ever seen came to my attention at a 1950s residential property that was being renovated for resale. After around 65 years, the solid slab foundation was literally fissured throughout the home and required complete replacement before the home’s other renovations could pass inspection.
Asbestos, Lead and Mold
In older residential and commercial buildings asbestos insulation and lead paint are a common problem. While these materials were once acceptable, they are now toxic hazards that need prompt attention. If you think that asbestos is only found in attic insulation or around large pipes, think again. You’ll find asbestos in old popcorn ceiling texturing, vinyl tile, drywall joint compound and cement shingle siding too.
Lead paint has been outlawed since 1978 because of its toxicity and it is considered a workplace hazard as well. Lead in paint and other materials found in work areas is regulated by the U.S. Occupational Health & Safety Agency (OSHA). Adults and children are primarily affected by lead through inhalation and ingestion where decaying lead based paint is present. Commercial property owners need to be aware that there are also lead hazards in old batteries, pipes, cable coverings, solder and more.
Molds exist typically where there are warm, damp and humid conditions. No one knows how many types of mold fungi exist, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC). We do know, however, that exposure to mold can result in symptoms from nasal stuffiness to irritated eyes and skin to wheezing. Depending on the type of mold and in people with allergies, the reactions to the presence of molds can be more severe and life threatening.
When you find asbestos, lead or mold, stop work immediately and call in expert engineering and environmental specialty firms for removal and environmentally appropriate disposal. Remember that asbestos, lead or mold remediation when done wrong as a do-it-yourself (DIY) project or by unqualified or uncertified individuals leaves you responsible for expensive rework, potential fines and open to lawsuits.
The original Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was adopted in 1990 and was updated with the 2010 ADA Standards for Accessible Design. The intent of the regulation is to provide facilities access to disabled persons through the required design, construction and alteration of structures. States, counties and cities all have incorporated the 2010 ADA standards into their building codes and require property owner compliance.
If you as a building owner or management team have not complied with these regulations, then you should consider doing so because there are legal firms that specialize in filing discrimination lawsuits on behalf of disabled people. Many times what could be as simple as installing handicapped parking spaces or modifying curbing from parking lots to your sidewalks can prevent the headache and expense of a lawsuit.
Many times minor code violations can be resolved quickly with professional assistance from a licensed building contractor or electrician, plumber, etc. Such violations often can be the result of inferior past repairs, alterations to structures in place, new code standards that require immediate implementation and changes in ownership.
Once more serious code violation trouble arrives, there is really nowhere to hide for long. Procrastination only leads to the most severe consequences. When these problems literally come to your door, this is the time to be a proactive owner and management team by contacting professional engineering and environmental firms.
While complying with the codes can no doubt sometimes be a painful process, consider the alternatives. Taiwan was struck this February by a 6.8 magnitude earthquake. Early investigations at the site of a collapsed multi-story structure indicated that the walls had been reinforced with tin cans rather than rebar.
This is an example of why we all want to live and work in buildings that have been professionally inspected and certified to stringent building codes. Well-constructed and well- maintained buildings are also the buildings that we want to own or manage.
What do you think? Have you encountered these problems? Let us know in the comments below.