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Tips on preventing water leaks in condominiums
by: Rob Samouce
Last month we looked into the intricate details as to who is legally responsible for the cost of clean-up and repair of damage caused by water leaks in a condominium building. Sometimes it is the association’s responsibility, sometimes it is the owner’s responsibility and sometimes it is either or both of these parties insurance companies less deductibles.

Today we will examine ways to greatly assist in preventing water leaks in the first place to avoid the expensive damages the leaks can cause. We have found that most of the water leaks in condominium buildings are caused by owners not proactively maintaining and timely replacing their appliances and related hardware; thereby, causing the leaks to occur.

The dilemma, however, is that even though this failure to properly maintain and replace may cause the leak, such failure usually does not rise to the level of provable legal negligence which, if found, could place the entire cost of clean-up and repair on the owner.

Instead, the usual result is that the association and other owners living in units below or next to the leak are having to pay for the costly cleanup and repairs of the damage to the common elements and the other owners’ units caused by a leak one owner created by ignoring an accident waiting to happen.

To cure this lack of maintenance and replacement problem, many associations have decided to amend their declaration of condominium to put strict negligence on the owner, who fails to maintain or replace for all the damage caused to all other units and the common elements as a result of a leak caused by the one owner’s maintenance and replacement failure.

Following are the items associations should consider putting in such a declaration amendment to encourage owners to do the right thing to prevent the water leaks:

1. Require owners to contract for ongoing air-conditioning maintenance service, which includes periodic inspection of the system on at least an annual basis, addition of chlorine tablets or other products to keep the lines clear and periodic blowout of the lines.

2. Require owners to replace unit water heaters after they have been in service for ten (10) years (normal life expectancy of a water heater before probable leaking).

3. Require owners to replace their dishwashers after they have been in service for fourteen (14) years (normal life expectancy of a dishwasher before probable leaking).

4. Require owners to replace all washing machine hoses with steel lined hoses.

5. Require owners to turn off their main water valve to the unit if the unit will be unoccupied for 48 hours or more.

The amendment should then provide that if the owner fails to do any of the above and a leak occurs as a result of the owner’s failure, the owner will be held strictly liable for all damage caused to the unit, the common elements, association property, other units or any other property which is damaged by such a leak.

Once the owners realize they will be responsible for much more than damage just to their own unit as a result of their maintenance and replacement failure, the vast majority of the owners will do these water leak prevention measures to avoid the huge cost that the strict liability provisions in the amendment will create for them if they do not.

For the unfortunate few, who fail to head the warning after the declaration amendment is approved by the members, they will find their failure to take these simple measures will cost them greatly.

A question that often arises is: How are we going to know if the water heater or dishwasher is more than 10 years or 14 years old when the leak occurred?

The answer is easy as each appliance has a model number on it that indicates when it was manufactured.

It is so much better to prevent the water leaks in multifamily buildings up front rather than have to cover the great expense of cleanup and damage repair later. A dry building makes for happy owners.
Rob Samouce, a principal attorney in the Naples law firm of Samouce, Murrell, & Gal, P.A., concentrates his practice in the areas of community associations including condominium, cooperative and homeowners' associations, real estate transactions, closings and related mortgage law, general business law, estate planning, construction defect litigation and general civil litigation. This column is not based on specific legal advice to anyone and is based on principles subject to change from time to time. Those persons interested in specific legal advice on topics discussed in this column should consult competent legal counsel.