Many of the issues and concerns that face potential owners of high-rise condominiums are not much different from those of potential owners of a typical freestanding home. They want to be reassured that the apartment they are purchasing is not a Pandora’s box filled with surprises. Depending on their plans, they may want a home that is ready to occupy, with just minor cosmetic issues—many feel this way—that can be remedied quickly to allow for swift occupancy. Others may decide they want their living space to represent more oftheir personality, so they make plans to alter the interior design of the apartment; oftentimes, kitchens and bathrooms become the targets of remodeling.
No matter how the potential homeowner pursues his or her dream of the “perfect” house, the core concerns are always the same. Nobody likes expensive surprises. They want to know as much as they can about the property they are purchasing. This allows them to manage their dream. As home inspectors, we want to satisfy the state’s standards, our client’s expectations, as well as the ASHI Standard of Practice. With high-rise apartments, the common areas—the jointly owned portions of the building—are an additional concern. Possibly the largest one.
Systems and Subsystems
We wish to give our client a snapshot of what they are looking to purchase, but we also must realize that there is a danger in overstepping our boundaries by finding fault with an entire system that cannot be fully seen. If a component of that system is significantly deficient, we must note that “this or that component is deficient.” In other words, we do not indict the system, but rather we recommend further investigation. Multiple-component deficiencies pointing to a larger conclusion are, of course, addressed.
The concept of a system goes beyond just looking at a unit that is for sale in a highrise building. The individual apartment is, in fact, a subsystem within the much larger context of a structural system (the common area) that supports the number of apartment units within its walls. We are not there to do a forensic examination of the structural system. We do not speculate on what we observe, yet we must connect multiple signs to “see the larger deficiency” if it is there.
In terms of reporting, instead of stating, “This building has a history of tuck-pointing issues, and the staff reports that tuck-pointing is an ongoing problem,” we find that it’s better to state, “The building shows evidence of previous tuck-pointing.” We then advise the buyer to check for results of a Capital Reserve Study (CRS), as well as the minutes of the Association Board Meetings, to determine if work that may be planned or under way is going to require a special assessment or if it is planned to come from the reserve account. Planning is done years in advance through the CRS. We advise our clients that these issues are worth looking into, but the final choice todo so is theirs. Some inspectors make that recommendation in writing.
When we inspect common areas, we operate on the rule of three: Once is happenstance, twice is coincidence and the third time is enemy action. For example, if we see improperly stored oil paint cans sitting in a corner of a basement by a boiler, newspapers stored underneath stairwells and poorly maintained lockers, storage areas or laundry rooms in the building, we make note of it.
We also take digital photographs. A picture is your protection and proof that what you observed is not fiction. You do not need to insert these pictures into your report, but you can at least cover yourself with the statement, “The condition I saw in the building at the time of the inspection would be considered to be ‘significantly deficient.’” You need to leave a little latitude between what is acceptable and unacceptable with respect to maintenance practices; however, if you see things that are clear violations of building, public health or fire standards, you would be well served to cover yourself by making a comment. Whatever is good for the client is good for your liability protection. Your focus is always toward the public health and safety of the client. If you do this, you need not worry about your liability.
Before a High-Rise Inspection
When we’ve been contacted by a prospective buyer, we use the intake interview to not only acquire core information, but also to request that the buyer or the buyer’s agent work with the high-rise association or management company to obtain the last three years of Annual Board Meeting minutes. Costly issues that are on the horizon or under discussion may well be recorded in the building minutes, Annual Board Report or in a Capital Reserve Study. Your client should review these documents before his or her inspection period is completed. Many clients use “significant deficiencies” discovered to extend their inspection period—for further investigation—and they request that the Board Minutes to be delivered during that period. The minutes don’t help if they are delivered after the inspection period and the attorney review.
You also should ask for—in writing—any building permits that have been issued for remodeling or construction that may have been done in the unit. If alterations have been performed, you should ask for a set of drawings. Blueprints are required for a single- family home or condo when plumbing and electrical work is done. No permits suggest substandard work that you may not be able to see, but are responsible for. Check for local online Building Department records for permit history.
We also run an Internet search on the highrise building itself. It has become in vogue for residential properties to have websites that allow for easy communication between building associations, management companies and tenants and owners. Depending on how much information about the building is available online to the general public, the clever inspector can glean information about the building and its construction prior to conducting the actual physical inspection.
Arrive early. We attempt to arrive for inspections about 30 minutes ahead of schedule. An early arrival gives us a chance to get a feel for the neighborhood, even as we look for parking. It also allows us the time to walk around the building to take pictures of the outside components, and we can complete notes about maintenance and the overall outside condition of the building.
Communication. When we meet with the client, we explain the inspection process and comment on what is covered and what is not covered in a typical apartment inspection. That said, many of us simply check everything. We discuss any concerns that the buyer mentions so that we can tailor the inspection to his or her needs. An inspection of the unit will be somewhat different—limited—from the norm unless, for example, the buyers plan to remodel the kitchen and bathrooms and tell you to “skip the common areas.” Writing up issues about a bathroom that will soon be completely gutted seems somewhat redundant, so you should ask the buyers if you can skip the area, given that it will be remodeled. Similarly, appliances that the potential new owner plans to discard when doing a kitchen renovation may not really deserve a lot of your attention. Always ask the buyer. It is best to let your client be your guide in this situation. Just make sure to note in your report that you passed on inspecting the appliances, bathroom fixtures or whatever and the reason why. The reason should typically be “per buyer’s instructions.”
Safety for children. If our client has or is expecting a child, we take extra precautions to make sure that childproofing issues are addressed. Window safety, safety glazing, electrical safety, water pressure (avoiding scalding) and lead paint issues get moved to the forefront under these circumstances. Be proactive for your client’s sake. If documentation has been provided, we take the time to do a cursory examination so as to better familiarize ourselves with any possible work that may have been done. Limited, unsigned documents or floor plans may actually mislead you. So be careful.
Invite the client to join the inspection. Our habit is to insist that our clients come along for the inspection if possible. There seems to be some debate as to whether this is a wise path to take. There are some home inspectors who prefer to work without the client following at their heels. This is a personal choice that the inspector needs to make, as it adds considerable liability to your work. We prefer taking the opportunity to get a feel for what our clients want to get out of the purchase they are planning to make.
When working with first-time homebuyers, we conveniently use the time spent as a chance to educate them on what they should be looking for when buying a home. The response we have received from our clients has always been positive. Are they going to be asking you questions during the inspection? Of course, they are! But the price tag for giving your client a little more attention is outweighed by the goodwill that it creates. It shows you to be someone who can be an asset to them, as opposed to the appearance of just being a foot soldier in a foregone conclusion. We like earning our fee by being helpful and effective.
Windows, floors, water, wind. We like to start with the inspection of windows. Be observant for evidence of window leakage, as in water stains or watermarks on glass. Are the windows original to the building? Are they in the Reserve Study as a Year 1 replacement? Are they funded? Vintage buildings that contain single-glazed, double-hung windows will have a tendency to pass water, in as opposed to newer double-glazed windows that are specifically designed to withstand higher wind pressures that affect apartment buildings, especially on upper floors. A high-rise wind load can equal its gravitational load.
When inspecting the apartment, learn to be like a sleuth. Learn to read signs. No, we’re not asking you to drop down on your hands and knees and tell us how many contractors have passed through a hallway. But this may be helpful on occasion. It would be better, though, for you to read what the floor has to tell you. Hardwood floors that show even the slightest cupping or dishing of the flooring material would typically be evidence of a previous water leak or standing water. Water that gets trapped between the concrete slab of a high-rise floor and the subflooring will remain there for quite some time, wreaking havoc as it ever so slowly dissipates. Often, you will note this in hallway areas close to kitchens and bathrooms.
Kitchens and bathrooms. Kitchens and bathrooms in condominiums often are barometers of what has happened within the apartment. If you are inspecting a unit in a 1930 vintage high-rise and it has a kitchen that is a modern marvel of chrome and marble, I guess we can say that it is not original. If you were not provided with any documentation or permits to support the remodeling work that was done, make note of it. Recommend that the client asks, in writing, for the permits. These are also public record. You could charge to obtain them. Be sure to get the age of the appliances; the style of cabinetry also can tip you off to its age.
Throughout the apartment and the building. Condominium inspections parallel single-family inspections in many ways. It is pretty straightforward to check plumbing fixtures, electrical, window integrity and more. We prefer to do our inspection of the common areas first before moving to the condominium. The engineer is usually not immediately available, but now has been notified that he or she is expected any time during the inspection. We suggest having the buyer arrange for the building engineer to come to the condo you are inspecting anytime during the process. This should not be too much of a burden on the staff.
Remember, once you get dirty, it is hard to get clean, and basements of high rises can be dusty places. When exiting the condominium, you should check the front, back and fire escape doors to see if they are labeled per current code requirements for your municipality. For example, Chicago requires that high-rise units have B-rated (90 minute) fire doors and fire escape doors. Glass in fire escape doors must contain wire or firelight (clear ceramic) glass. This glass should be clearly marked as such.
Common areas. When inspecting common areas, take a moment to pop your head into the building stairwells. You might even want to walk down a few floors. Observe the condition of the stairwell; you want to make sure that any pipe penetrations into the stairwell have been properly firestopped. Nothing should be stored on the landings of the stairways and each floor should be clearly marked. Getting up to the roof can sometimes be problematic. We’ve had managers refuse to allow us access to the roof for safety reasons, insurance concerns or security issues. Whatever the reason, if they refuse your access, you should write it up as such in your report. This puts the burden of refusal on the shoulders of management. Ultimately, if your client wants to see the roof, and you are insured, you will get access, but it may require a letter from the buyer’s attorney.
Basement. Once you are in the basement, you’ll get the opportunity to look at some of the piping. It always helps to find out the history of building plumbing. Is it original to the building? If so, how old is the building? If it is a building that was built in 1920, for example, the galvanized piping in that building is over 97 years of age. The textbook answer to life expectancy for galvanized piping is 60 to 80 years. You should notdraw any conclusions from this in your report, but your statement should cause potential buyers to work out the math in their heads. Recommend they review the Capital Reserve Study for planned replacement. We suspect that riser re-piping is just around the corner. It may be ongoing. Coach your clients by telling them what clues point toward the need for replacement: rusty water, iron flakes in the water, poor pressure, a building that is 80 or more years old. Pipe clamps are also a great indicator of pipe condition. They will get the picture and insist on reading the CRS.
Make note of the building’s history. Recently, we walked into a building engineering office. As we were talking to the engineer of the building, we noted the 10-foot span of .-inch galvanized pipe that had four clamps attached to it standing in a corner. The building was built in 1931. This is an example of why you need to get as much history and have as much conversation as possible with the building engineer or manager regarding the electrical service and all systems and components. Electrical service needs to be sufficient to cover the needs of your client. Look for fire-stop material around electrical service conduits passing through walls in the basement areas. Are they fire-stopped? They should be.
See the photo of an electrical vault above. This situation was the result of an electric company upgrading a service from 1,200 to 2,000 amps, but forgetting to fire-stop and caulk entrance points going into the electrical vault. At the first bad rain after the installation, the electrical tunnel under the street flooded and resulted in this water penetration. That is a live service that water is pouring over. And this sort of situation is why we fire-stop and caulk openings around piping.
Clients and contact information. At the conclusion of the inspection and after having made sure we’ve answered any questions our clients have, we make sure to thank all the parties present for their assistance. Make sure to get names and titles of those with whom you speak. You want to attribute the right quote to the right person when you are writing your report. Then collect your fee.
Know the Codes
With high-rises, you are limited in the testing of heating and cooling systems, which are dependent on outside temperature. Do not expect to be able to check the heat output in the summer or air-conditioning systems in the winter.
Make sure to refresh yourself on codes that are specific to high-rise structures. The International Code Council Code Check Guide that most of us wound up using when we learned to become home inspectors is a terrific index to help identify issues. It is also helpful to use your municipal resources to give you additional facts and information pertinent to your high-rise inspection.
For example, the city of Chicago offers a checklist of items that need to be taken care of before having a life safety evaluation inspection in a high-rise. You can get this checklist online. It walks you through what is needed for a building to pass life safety inspection. Cross-referencing what you see in the building with what is on the checklist gives you a better understanding of how compliant the building is.
Increase Your Business with High-Rise Inspections
The work you get in the field of high-rise apartment inspections depends somewhat on your location. If you are doing inspections in rural and suburban areas, high-rise inspections may not be all that frequent for you. For those who live and work in urban areas—especially big cities—however, performing high-rise inspections offers the opportunity to increase your business. It also means that you must adjust your perspective to suit the inspection you take on.
Remember, when you performed your very first home inspection, you might have felt intimidated, but you gradually learned that the more you do something, the better you get at it. We could go on at length trying to cover the myriad issues that can come up in a high-rise inspection, but there is just too much to cover. More educational materials should be devoted to the subject, which is why we’ve shared our guidance here.
Our best advice for performing high-rise apartment inspections is to be vigilant within your surroundings, give due diligence to your report and, finally, don’t forget to enjoy the investigation. It is not too often that people get a chance to be Sherlock Holmes and get paid for doing it as well.
Rudolf (Rudy) De Keersmaecker has worked in the field of high-rise engineering, inspection and real estate in the city of Chicago for the past 42 years. Semi-retired, he now operates a home inspection company in La Porte, IN. He is a Contracted FEMA Emergency Disaster inspector, as well as being a residential high-rise code safety instructor, teaching highrise code compliance classes for Service Employees’ International Union (SEIU) Local 1 training fund.
Tom Corbett founded Tomacor and the Illinois Inspector Training Institute in 1985. During his career, Tom helped create the Illinois Society of Professional Home Inspectors, and wrote for the Chicago Sun-Times. He has also served as an educator for ASHI, the Illinois Inspector Training Institute and Metra Rail. Tom worked as an expert twice for the U.S. Attorney in Illinois and the City of Chicago Landmark Commission. He has completed paid inspections in Texas, Oregon, Minnesota, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Connecticut and New York City. He has 32 expert court appearances behind him. He has been an educator at ASHI’s International Conferences three times. His company’s motto is: “Tomacor—improving neighborhoods, creating community one building at a time.”