Comstock: Condo shock can be averted

By Michael Comstock –

Condo residents across the city need to be aware of the many problems their buildings can get into if they’re not built by a well-regarded developer. Owners pay condo fees every month,  to cover the cost of operations and maintenance.

This condo fee must cover everything from the concierge and cleaning staff to gardening, roofing, insurances and maintaining a reserve fund for all minor and major future repairs.

The monthly rate is substantial, typically 40 to 90 cents per foot. So, the most shocking condo notice you can receive is a “special assessment” to bring the reserve fund to the required level. When increasing the monthly fee is just not enough, it also means something has gone wrong at your building.

Special assessments are hitting more and more condo residents with high painful amounts. Two St. Lawrence-area buildings have seen $22,000- to $28,000-per-unit charges. Others have had their monthly fees double. This kind of money can end a relationship, spoil a retirement and anger the meek. It shouldn’t happen!

There is a system of management with engineering studies, expense forecasting, professional managers and the open election of representatives for condos boards. A system has developed just so this personal and financial shock doesn’t occur. These bankrupt buildings have failed to function properly in several areas. The engineering studies were wrong, the financial plan was wrong; the elected condo board wasn’t on top of things or the management company failed. Something can happen unexpectedly.

Well-intentioned roof gardens can eat into the roof. Brick will need to be pointed from time to time, but the reserve fund will look after those expenses if the condo is working properly. What is of great concern now are the unseen possibilities arising from the huge number of new buildings in Downtown Toronto. We hope and believe that the bare bones of these buildings are sound and the engineering and construction techniques are always first rate.

I believe that because these things can be tested, are observable and are taken seriously by builders and the trades. But, the devil’s in the details. Every plumbing joint and electrical connection is not perfect.

Some developers sit by, watching for the tower to rise in the sky, and rethink that last deal they made for the appliances: “Can I save $20 per unit with this cheap lighting fixture? Can I save $50 with those odd microwaves?” Finishes are rushed, cheapened and the last thing done is usually not done well.

Wide-eyed new owners are keen to accept the unit and not likely to criticize the building and undermine their own property values.

We are accepting paper baseboards, mactac-covered quarter-round, plastic wooden floors and light fixtures that cost less than their bulbs. We are making people with a lot of money a lot more money. In Toronto the residential condo has been a diamond mine for developers, including some first-timers with no experience. Our future is unclear.

Also unclear is the city’s ability to scrutinize the developers’ demands. We have parks and art requirements that are met by each building rather than contributing to something really meaningful. So we have several little north-side “garden” areas, rather than a useful-sized local park. Instead of some really impressive art installation, we have several buildings with a uniquely placed metal cheese grater of one style or another. There is no commercial plan for the residential/commercial-zoned properties. The city does not require the first floor retail space to be part of the condo. That is a recipe for future discord in the building.

Just to be equally confounding the city will allow a row of townhouses to be built and declare that each one is freehold, so there are no condominium elements. Normally, even freehold townhouses share their exterior finishes, roof and a strip of garden or laneway. I know of an uber-modern freehold townhouse development where if the person in the middle townhouse decides to cover the front in Angelstone, he can. The rest of the units have no control.

When the roofs need to be replaced the failure of the city to require condominium elements will become all too apparent.

Condo residents have to become concerned and involved in their buildings and neighbourhoods. It is vitally important to us all that this happens. The new Downtown residents will set the tone for the quality of life in Toronto‘s core. If you feel the calling, the concern to be involved, don’t pass it by, join a committee, run for the board, or you just might get that $28,000 bill.