Leaky Condo's

Modern Condo's Solid State Home Inspections

For many home buyers, a condominium is ideal because of location, costs, or lifestyle. On Canada’s wet west coast, a major building flaw started to emerge in buildings built in the late 80‘s by the end of the 90’s, billions of dollars had to be spent by unknowing strata owners to repair their buildings and new buildings are still being identified with problems today. The building flaw became known as ‘leaky condo’ due to a relationship with exterior water penetration. 

Canada’s wet west coast experienced this epidemic suddenly and in large numbers because of the amount of rainfall we receive but there are indications this building issue is spreading to other regions and cities. This article will focus on the experiences on the Canadian West coast.

What is a Leaky Condo?

Leaky condos are a generic term covering ‘building envelope’ faults with building designs from the late 80’s through the 90’s. In particular, there was a large influence on building design that came out of California that was adopted widely in the Vancouver region. Unfortunately, California buildings don’t see anywhere near the amounts of humidity and rain we see in Metro Vancouver meaning although the designs had survived well in California, they were untested in our climate.

There were three key designs that came from California which contributed to building envelope faults were:

  • Flat Roofs - Flat roofs need to be completely waterproof to prevent water penetration and that includes at roof edges, chimneys, and changes in elevation. While flat roofs have been around for a long time, the California inspired designs were more complicated than past buildings increasing risks of water penetration. (see our article on flat roofs)
  • No Building Overhangs - Traditional european building designs employ an overhang from the roof over the walls. This overhang provides some building shade in the summer but also helps keep water off walls and windows in the rainy season. With no overhangs, it is even more important walls have to be water tight from the roof surface to the ground. As this is very difficult to accomplish with windows, doors, balconies, and other building details penetrating walls, walls became a higher risk of water ingress into buildings with more water reaching the walls.
  • New Types of Stucco - Stucco has been with us for a long time but traditional stucco was installed in three layers which prevented most water penetration and it also has the ability to ‘breath’ and dry out underneath if water did penetrate. California stucco uses a single layer of stucco over a waterproof styrofoam board. The complete system is often called Exterior Insulated Finish System (EIFS). This system needs to be ‘face sealed’ to prevent any water from penetrating as water that gets behind the styrofoam board cannot dry out and will cause rot and mold damages to the building structure.  (see our article on exterior surfaces)

There were two other factors at play in addition to poor designs. First, builders were not familiar with these California systems and installation quality was too often poor. Second, Governments were attempting to increase building energy efficiency and were requiring air-tight building methods. When buildings become air tight, they can no longer ‘breath’ which means moisture trapped behind walls has no way to dry and it would start attacking structure.

The combination of poor building designs, poor installation, and trapped water led to the failure of building envelopes and became the leaky condo epidemic we are still experiencing.

Were Only Condo’s Effected by Leaky Condo Syndrome?

The building design flaws and materials associated with leaky condos tended to be more often employed on commercial buildings and condo’s. The materials and designs from leaky condos were better suited for larger footprint buildings and the water ingress risk increased with taller building heights (more wall surfaces).  There are many commercial buildings like shopping malls and grocery stores which have also suffered from building envelope issues but this issue has not been as widely reported as it did not impact so many individual owners. Some designer homes in this period were built with these methods most homes were built using more traditional styles and materials.

How Do I Avoid Buying a Leaky Condo?

If you are buying a condo on the west coast of Canada, there are three things you need to do to protect yourself.

  1. Hire a Realtor who knows the condo market well in your area and is committed to helping you avoid a leaky condo. Realtors who know the market well know each building and can tell you which have been through a leaky condo repair and which have not.
  2. Good condo buildings will have full strata minutes and engineering reports if there are any concerns about water ingress. Read these throughly and work with your Realtor to get all other disclosures and documents as needed from the sellers like the form ‘b’ disclosure where the seller has to tell you about past water issues. The term 'leaky condo' is avoided by stratas and engineers so look for terms like water ingress, high moisture content, and unknown moisture source as words of concern.
  3. Get a Home Inspector who is qualified to look at commercial building exteriors. Not all Home Inspectors are created equal in this respect. The Canadian Association of Home and Property Inspectors (CAHPI) offers a comprehensive in-class Commercial Inspection course through CDW Engineering. These commercial trained inspectors are better trained to help you identify your risks for leaky condo issues.

What Does a Home Inspector Look at for Leaky Condo Risks?

Unfortunately, building envelope issues can remain hidden from view even to home inspectors until the damages are very significant and expensive to repair. In order to provide our home inspection clients with some help, we classify condo buildings by the level of leaky condo risk to the buyers:

  • Low Risk for Leaky Condo -  Combined with 'clean' strata and engineering documentation, these building characteristic typically have low risk for leaky condo:
    • Peaked Roofs (not all flat roofs are bad though)
    • The Roof Overhangs the Walls
    • Built Pre-1985 or Post 2000 (not the 90’s)
    • ‘Rain Screened’ (see future post on this topic)
    • Hardieboard, vinyl, wood, or concrete exterior siding (see our article on exterior surfaces)
  • High Risk for Leaky Condo - High Risk Condo’s for future or current building envelope issues have the following characteristics:
  • ‘Fixed’ Leaky Condos - There are hundreds of buildings in the lower mainland that have been ‘fixed’ (also called remediated) after building envelope issues were discovered. The good thing about this for condo buyers is you know the building had been repaired. The down side is the building had been build with flaws and that other flaws may emerge. Many ‘fixed’ buildings required additional remediation work as the first round of repairs were not suitable. Our preference is to avoid ‘fixed’ buildings and advise clients to look for ‘low risk’ buildings instead.

Final Thoughts

While Condo’s have had more than their fair share of issues when it comes to building envelops, there are thousands of great condo buildings available to choose from. Get a Realtor who is looking out for your best interests, read all the sales documents including strata notes and engineer reports, and work with a great home inspector and you will give yourself the best protection from a bad building and can move in knowing your home will be safe and solid.

By James Bell - Owner/Operator of Solid State Inspections Inc.