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Say, you’re in bed, and you hear what a shower sounds like. It’s late and you’re tired, so you don’t mind paying for it. At 4 a.m., you wake up. You have forgotten to turn the shower off to get a glass of water and find half the rooms flooded in your apartment! To soak up the water and call your building’s maintenance personnel, you throw blankets and towels on the floor.


They can get most of the moisture out of the flooded areas with the aid of a dehumidifying machine. But the wooden floor tiles themselves are severely damaged, and a fair amount of water infiltrated the unit of your neighbor downstairs, damaging the ceilings, walls, and some artwork. Who’s responsible for the flooring restoration? And what of the water that poured down below into the apartment?


The Fundamentals

It can be very complicated to find out what systems and features in an owner’s unit are his or her responsibility and which are the responsibility of the association. Many principles are universal, but depending on the rules of that specific community, other details can vary from building to building.


According to Lee Heller, a business management director with Associa, owners are “typically responsible for the interior of their unit, the wall, ceiling and floor coverings (a management company with locations across the U.S., including two in the Chicagoland area).” “There is a hot water heater or an air handler, their appliances, the plumbing and electrical panel.” Unfortunately, unless your building administration decides to be generous, this would probably include those wooden floor tiles.


An exception, though, is piping inside the walls, says Robert Meyer, an engineering services director for FirstService Residential of Illinois, a national property management firm. “In a typical condominium association, the association belongs to all domestic plumbing contained within the walls (risers). Conversely, on their side (or inside) of that wall is the owner’s responsibility. The unit owner is responsible for all the plumbing fixtures within their unit, from their unit to the vertical main line, tubs, toilets, sinks, faucets and drain lines, explains Meyer.


So, what else is responsible for the building or development? For whatever is considered part of the structure of the building, as well as common and limited common elements, an association is responsible. This would include the hallways, lobby, elevators, basement, boilers or A/C rooftop, plus the electrical wiring from the point where the building is entered from the street to the point where the circuit breaker or junction box is entered.


All this talk can become quite confusing about private use, common and limited common elements. Meyer provides a simple tip for understanding the basics of responsibility for plumbing repairs. Asking,’ Who can use this fixture?’ is a good way to understand where responsibility lies. Is it just the unit’s residents or everyone who lives in the building? ‘If the answer is just the residents of the unit, then it is their responsibility to properly maintain and service it,’ he says.


Areas of Gray

There are some gray areas, as in almost everything, when it comes to who is obligated to fix what in a multifamily building.


“Most misunderstandings, i.e., water damage and electrical problems, come after an incident has occurred,” Meyer says. “It is always a problem to plumb branch lines. These branch lines, while contained within the walls, are considered a limited common element because they only serve the kitchen or bath of a specific unit. Also, electrical service to the unit can be a problem. Service begins at the meter, but most owners are under the impression that at their circuit-breaker panel it begins.


“When there is a failure between the meter and the unit, for instance,” Meyer continues, “it is usually misunderstood to be the responsibility of the building, but it is not. There is a meter room on every floor in most buildings, and in some cases, the distance from that room to the breaker panel of a unit can be 30 feet or more. Nevertheless, since the electricity is passed through the meter, leaving the meter room and powering its breaker panel, the entire distance is the responsibility of the owner, Meyer says.


A frequent source of conflict, such as windows, air conditioning equipment and air-conditioning sleeves inside the walls, are other places at the intersection of the wall and a specific piece of equipment.


Alterations are yet another potentially sticky area, although perhaps a little less so than some of the others mentioned above, since most communities have explicitly spelled out in their governing documents the rules and regulations regarding alterations. Generally speaking, if you do an alteration, you are responsible for it, say the practitioners.


It’s in the Docs

For residents to know the rules in their building, the most efficient way to reduce all this uncertainty of repair liability and hopefully prevent it from materializing in the first place is. And building administrators, for their part, should make sure that the rules are clear, concise and unambiguous.


For owners, learning the rules begins with reading the governing documents, which contain all the specifics of responsibility for repair, says James Erwin, founding partner of Erwin & Associates LLC’s Chicago-based law firm.


“On both sides of the coin, there are assumptions made, and sometimes boards try to do the right thing or they try to be nice and actually violate their statements and bylaws in doing so, and they pay for something when they shouldn’t have,” he says. Most of the time, gray areas result from a simple lack of understanding of concepts and a lack of education. They don’t understand what makes the common element a limited one. They do not understand what that means even if they read it. If I say to them, ‘You only serve the balcony outside your window,’ they seem to get it. But that doesn’t seem right to them, the pipes running into their unit. That’s why we say,’ Buyer beware.’ You have to read the statement when you buy and make sure you’re okay with it,’ advises Erwin.


“Whether they are radiators, ducts or flues, it is the statement that generally determines the specific answer or the responses specific to their property and specific systems,” he continues.


The Illinois Condominium Property Act contains a requirement that, to a certain extent, must be within the governing provisions, but most statements go further than that. One thing I always point out is that it is essential to distinguish between the responsibility for maintenance and repair versus the responsibility for maintenance and repair costs. The former, the obligation to do the maintenance or repair, falls to the association in certain instances, but the owner can still be charged for that cost.


Not too long ago,” Erwin explains, “we just had a case where there was an incident with a pipe located just outside the wall of a unit, so the unit owner assumed the association’s cost liability would fall. But as many statements in Chicago do, theirs specified that if it were a pipe or other system that only served one or less than all the units, meaning it was a limited common component, the cost would be borne by the owner of the unit, even if it was outside the unit. So, we charged it back to the unit owner in this case. This is specifically what the statement called for.


The experts agree that the majority of associations in the Chicagoland area have the specifics of building system responsibility outlined in their documents. So, while it may be uncommon for a board to have the need to amend their documents with provisions and clarifications for repair and maintenance responsibilities, it can be done if necessary. Sometimes, even just developing a simplified version of these clauses could guide owners to a better understanding of maintenance duties, Meyer says. If a board feels the need to go this route, its attorney should carefully review these records to ensure that they conform to the current or desired practices of the building.


The Importance of Insurance

Aside from documents, all shareholders or unit owners must carry adequate coverage for insurance. This is one way for management to ensure that gaps are closed and conflicts avoided, says Heller. Not only personal items such as computers and furniture, but also paint, wallpaper and flooring can be covered by such a policy.


In the intersection of maintenance and repair responsibility, adequate insurance coverage also plays an important role, Heller adds. By asking readers to visualize a Venn diagram, he illustrates this point.


One circle is ownership-who owns the item, one is responsibility for maintenance, and the third is responsibility for insurance,” he says. “They are all the same with well-written or smart documents. But unfortunately, they are not the same many times. So in some regions, state statute comes in and says that the association is responsible for insurance from the air-conditioning system by law.


Nevertheless,” Heller continues, “that immediately makes owners believe that the association is responsible for maintaining the air-conditioning system, which it is not. So when it breaks, or it is not serviced regularly, those issues arise and those are the absolute responsibilities of the unit owner. Let’s say that the unit owner owns the air handler in their unit and the air-conditioning compressor in the third circle.


It’s often not easy to determine responsibility for repair elements. Most of the time, whether you’re talking about condos, co-ops or townhomes, and when owners take good care of their units, there will be no problems. Be sure to consult your attorney for those times when they do.


This article is paraphrased. Original source:


Categories: Plumbing

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