2006/09/Stop Look And Listen Before You Leap

By Noah Liberman
Special to the Tribune
Published September 17, 2006

Chicago real estate inspector Tom Corbett has a story about a client who was distressed to discover that the garbage chute in his new condo building made a 45-degree bend right outside his unit.

The man would hear cascading trash hitting the chute wall all night. “The bend isn’t supposed to be more than 10 or 15 degrees,” Corbett says.

There’s a moral in all that trash: newly built condos tend to look fantastic, but you have to look–and listen–closely when you’re shopping, because they can house a slew of flaws that could keep you up nights.

The market for newly built and renovated condos in the Chicago area has remained strong. An influx of jobs, low interest rates and more sophisticated styling have driven it, and high resale values have lured younger Chicagoans who might have rented a decade ago.

But that says nothing about quality. Is the average condo better built than a decade or two ago?

Inspectors say no. “Absolutely not. Cinder block, for example. It’s the bane of new construction, and it started around 1992,” says Mark Lozeron, president of HouseCall Inspections in Chicago.

He says cinder block, increasingly common on small- and medium-size buildings, requires extensive and repeated waterproofing. Besides, when builders and condo associations cut corners, water seeps in and causes mold and structural damage. “In about 20 or 30 years, it’s going to cause significant damage,” he says. “Floors are going to collapse.”

But ask the builders and it’s a different stories. “Buildings are way superior now,” says Charles Huzenis, president of Chicago’s Jameson Realty Group, which has several million dollars worth of new condos in development. “The glass, the cement, it’s all better quality. And we don’t use cinder blocks, not even on smaller buildings.”

Real estate consultants straddle both views. “We would all like to hear that it’s been quality from Day 1, but builders have different styles,” says Mark Gianopulos, senior consultant in the Hoffman Estates office of Metrostudy, which tracks big-city real estate trends. “The best way, unequivocally, [to forecast a condo’s quality] is to look at what a builder has developed over the past five years.”

That’s Job One when you’ve got your eye on a building. And it’s surprisingly easy to do, once you or your real estate agent has asked for the addresses of the developer’s other recent buildings. Condo associations are non-profit organizations, and your agent should look up the name of the condo president–it’s public information. And the president is likely to talk.

“These people are passionate about their building,” Gianopulos says. “They’ve had either a real positive or a real negative experience.”

Presidents can tell you how individual units have weathered their first few years and how the building has stood up. They also can talk about how smoothly the transition from developer-management to association-management went and whether the building was turned over in the condition promised.

And there are myriad signs of good and bad construction that are easy to spot.

Walk slowly past a developer’s earlier buildings. “There should not be any wear and tear visible on a building 5 years old,” Gianopulos says. No cracks in foundations, no signs of standing water around the building or water stains along the exterior. Doors and windows should hang right, and their sashes shouldn’t show signs of wear or weathering. Shoddy landscaping is probably the association’s fault, while shoddy construction is the developer’s.

This research is for the “I might put an offer down” stage. But your scrutiny should start with your first visit to the unit.

Here’s a checklist:

Paint

Can you see a lighter coat of paint under the pigmented top coat? This means you’re spotting the primer, and the unit got only one additional coat, not two. Run your fingers over the paint; is it smooth or riddled with bumps? The latter could mean poor prep.

And see whether the top of wooden doors has been painted along with the front, back and sides. Unpainted top and bottom surfaces allow in moisture, which means doors might not fit in muggy weather.

Kitchen

Cabinet doors and drawers should have pulls in the same place throughout the kitchen, and cabinets should close flat and meet nearly flush with each other–with only the width of a nickel between doors that close together.

Look at the cabinet structures (what the doors attach to): Where two cabinets meet, there should be a smooth, nearly seamless transition, no sharp edge.

Look in the cabinets with a flashlight. There should be no water stains and no extension cords connecting appliances to outlets (surprisingly common, Corbett says). There should be finish plates or “escutcheons” around pipes where they pass through walls and cabinets, and neatly cut, small openings for those pipes. Big, ugly, rough-sawed openings mean a sloppy plumber or electrician.

Appliances

Dents are a bad sign, needless to say. But look at model numbers and check them out in consumer magazines and Web sites that rate them. Not all stainless steel appliances are created equal.

Windows

Same here. Even top companies have a range of models, so does a high-end new building have middle-of-the-road windows? If the developer cut costs here, where else did he?

Bathroom

Wear rubber-soled shoes and gently kick the commode; it should be rock-solid. If it wobbles even a hair, there could be a breach where it meets the soilpipe.

Signs of a cut-rate bathroom include no sealant on the tile grout (drop some water on the floor and see whether the grout absorbs it: bad sign); raw edges on the outermost wall tiles (should be smoothed-over “bullnose” tiles there); medicine cabinets that open into other cabinets or mirrors; or any window glass that isn’t safety-glazed (look for the safety symbol on it).

And here’s one right out of a detective show: Turn on the bathroom fan and hold a piece of toilet tissue to it. The tissue should cling tightly to the fan cover, not dangle or fall. Weak ventilation can cause big problems later.

Fit and finish

Cast your eyes along long stretches of molding and see whether they fit tightly and seams are smooth. Corbett says he’s seen Loop condos where you could look past badly installed and caulked windows to the open air.

And inspect at electrical fixtures in places such as closets. If they’re not flush, the electrician was careless or in a rush.

On your way out, look at common areas such as the boiler room and garage. Is there standing water or water stains in strange places? Are the spaces where pipes go through walls caulked and filled with insulation (a safety feature)? Are pipes protected from car bumpers with metal or concrete “bollards?” Is the garage floor bare concrete that’s slippery and susceptible to cracking or does it have a rough, rubberized coating?

Finally, if the building is still under construction, check to see how tidy the builders keep the common areas. “If they’re filled with equipment, that’s OK, but if it’s debris and it’s sloppy throughout the building, then maybe they’re not tightening electrical wire nuts or installing cabinets plumb or finishing the roof right either,” Corbett says.

From: www.chicagotribune.com

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