Identifying problems and potential risks before they become emergencies
If 2020 taught us anything, it is to prepare for the unexpected. Unfortunately, it’s a lesson that is bound to repeat itself. Already in 2021, property owners and operators have experienced unprecedented winter storms and tragic structural collapses, and hurricane season is still on the horizon. These disastrous events brought about strict new requirements for multifamily owners, including mandated property upgrades and engineering inspections, as well as increased oversight of risk mitigation efforts.
While these recently introduced requirements represent a substantial commitment by property owners, they are merely the last line of defense against catastrophe. Property teams, and their due diligence practices, are the first line of defense against property damage and the devastating consequences of natural disaster or even neglect. Through preventive maintenance and regular inspections, property owners gain a better sense of the structural health of their assets, as well as the ability to act before it’s too late.
Here is a guide for property inspection and risk assessment, and how to prepare properties for mandated structural audits:
🔎 Prior to Formal Audit – Exterior Inspection:
Establish a checklist
A comprehensive inspection template facilitates a thorough and consistent process. The ability to compare inspection reports on an apples-to-apples basis is critical to accurately assess risk and worsening conditions.
Require real-time reporting.
Maintenance and inspection platforms that feature real-time reporting enable immediate mitigation or escalation. By identifying and addressing issues in their infancy, property teams can save both time and expense, and limit the impact on residents.
Assess drainage systems.
Most structural and cosmetic damage at multifamily communities is water related. By regularly evaluating grading and ensuring that drain lines are clear, properties can fend off many of the structural issues stemming from prolonged exposure to water, significant weather events or leaks.
Examine exterior walls.
Improper clearance between roofs and walls can lead to saturation. Omitted diverter flashing at wall junctions and belt bands can allow water to penetrate. Improper installation of exterior duct vents, electrical boxes and plumbing are all potential sites for water intrusions. Visible surface issues involving any of these exterior features likely indicate a larger water issue inside the walls.
Inspect window seals.
Dynamic sealant joints – which buffer dissimilar materials and allow for thermal movement of vinyl window assemblies – are now recommended, if not construction requirements, to help prevent water intrusion around windows. Gaps along window trim, frosted windows or condensation, and deteriorated trim are all signs of failed seals. Inspection teams have recently tapped mobile infrared technology to inspect electrical panels, troubleshoot HVAC systems and identify water damage.
Check the decks.
Despite being fully exterior extensions of living spaces, decks are often the culprits behind interior water damage. Improperly installed flashing can route water behind walls rather than away from the building, making deck-to-wall integrations a key component of any inspection checklist.
Review the roof.
Roofing problems generally reveal themselves right away, but property teams can stay ahead of major issues by including roof coverings when they conduct property inspections. Post-storm roofing assessments are also recommended. Many maintenance teams are turning to drone technology to reduce associates’ risk and examine roofing materials and construction from the air.
Search for structural issues.
Structural defects – like cracking foundations, signs of settling and corrosion – must be included in any comprehensive property inspection checklist. Early detection is paramount to prolonging the viability of the property.
Predict plumbing problems.
As we’ve learned this year, freezing temperatures can strike almost anywhere in the country. Property teams need to identify their potential problem areas and develop a plan to either insulate or drain exposed water lines to prevent broken pipes and related flooding issues.
Account for amenities.
Especially with more people working from home, amenity spaces have become an extension of renters’ living spaces. Ensure that amenities – from clubhouses to fitness centers, coworking spaces and work-from-home offices, indoor and outdoor kitchens, pet facilities and playground equipment – receive the same attention to detail as residential buildings.
Expedite the audit process.
Thanks to the reporting capabilities of digital inspection platforms, property teams can provide structural auditors with a wealth of upfront information and documentation. Streamlining the process for auditors will result in a smoother experience and less inconvenience throughout the process.
🏘 Onsite Action - Steps to take before contacting a contractor
Install mitigation features.
On young properties or following recent renovations, onsite teams still have a window of opportunity to correct issues like missing flashing or an improperly sealed wall penetration before they lead to damage. The work can either be conducted by qualified maintenance associates or by revisiting the issue with the original contractor.
Deploy sensor technology.
Water leak sensors and humidity sensors can be placed in any area suspected to have water issues. If a leak or water intrusion is detected, the sensor can immediately trigger a task alert through an integration with a maintenance platform. Detection at the earliest stages can prevent even minor surface damage.
Tap into infrared.
Leverage other forward-looking infrared (FLIR) technologies to help determine the extent of internal damage. When issues come to the surface of a wall, maintenance teams can utilize FLIR on the exterior to inspect for damage within. Based on those findings, they can determine whether it’s an in-house job or an issue that requires a building envelope specialist.
Contractors must warranty their work.
Remember, contractors typically need to chase any damage, as well as its source, to extinction because they have to warranty whatever they touch at the property. As a result, hiring a contractor may involve a more extensive and expensive fix than is actually required.
🦺 Engage an Engineer – Limit Liability
Secure the structure.
Structural red flags are an urgent matter and beyond the scope of onsite maintenance teams. Failure to report or take immediate action on such issues puts lives at risk and exposes ownership to liability issues. Comprehensive inspection templates should always include a structural assessment, but mitigation shouldn’t be attempted by property teams.
Consider climate assessments.
Property owners can also contract with firms to conduct local climate and weather pattern assessments – targeting potential issues like severe storm systems and rising sea levels – to further gauge the structural integrity and longevity of their assets.
Uncover underground issues.
Signs of structural issues can generally be identified above ground, but problems below the surface can be elusive. Ultrasound services can be brought in to provide a subterranean look at the foundation and expose any settling concerns or below-grade issues that need to be unearthed.
Hire an owner’s representative.
Contractors sometimes cut corners, and property owners can benefit from a third party that serves as their eyes and ears during construction and renovation, to ensure things are done correctly. An owner’s rep can oversee a project to help prevent structural problems from the onset.
Structural audits and inspections are increasingly becoming part of multifamily property management, and owners need to be prepared for the new level of oversight and regulation. By equipping themselves to effectively tackle due diligence and self-inspection, property teams can stay ahead of the curve and keep the process as painless as possible.