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A look at Florida condo reforms, three years after the Surfside collapse

Courtesy: Florida Task Force 3

State Rep. Vicki Lopez has a recommendation for prospective homebuyers in her district: “I'm telling people not to buy a condominium now.”

It’s been more than three years since the collapse of Champlain Towers South in Surfside, which claimed the lives of 98 people. Since then, the state has enacted reforms to make condo buildings safer.

A building that’s more than 30 years old is now required to have a milestone inspection done before Dec. 31, 2024. Residential cooperative associations must also complete a structural integrity reserve study by Dec. 31, and set aside reserve funds for replacement costs and maintenance expenses.

But Lopez, who represents part of Miami-Dade County, said only a handful of condo associations in her district have completed their structural integrity reserve study. Others are still trying to find a company to do it prior to the December deadline. She noted the state won’t penalize associations as long as they try to fulfill the requirements.

“So I've said, look, do your best, document in your minutes that you went out, you talked to three companies, this is what they can do for you. And then enter into a contract. That will show your fiscal integrity,” Lopez said.

Rebecca Liebson with the Tampa Bay Times said there are few engineers who can take on this kind of work, compared to how many associations there are in Florida.

“So really, if they haven't gotten a move on this process already, the clock is really ticking here, it can take months even to just put out a request for a proposal and get responses,” Liebson said.

She also noted the importance of these inspections.

“… you can't really understand the true health of the building until you get into the actual concrete and start looking at what's needed to be done. And so you can take an initial visual glance, but these engineers will be doing their due diligence to really get in there. And truthfully, the problem can't really be told and you can't really come up with a price tag for how much this sort of thing will cost until you've gone through everything. And so the initial estimate that these buildings are getting could balloon over time as these inspections unfold.”

Putting funds in reserve can be a big pill to swallow for associations, Lopez explained.

“It's all coming to a head. And obviously for many condominiums across the state, because they were still required to reserve but could waive those reserves, most everyone was waving reserves as if to say, I'll just kick this can down the road,” Lopez said. “When Surfside happens, when this terrible tragedy happens, the Legislature realizes we can't allow that anymore. We will never allow a building to collapse the way it did in Surfside.”

Floridians have been moving away from condos prior to the reforms, according to Liebson, in part due to the Surfside collapse and rising insurance costs.

Lopez said the reforms are playing a role in the slowdown of condo sales.

“We know that banks and mortgage brokers are not giving mortgages to buildings who don't have reserves, adequate reserves. They just don't want to take the risk,” Lopez said. “The other side is that people are trying to dump their condos because they can't afford the assessments.”

With the new regulations, Liebson said some people who sell their condos may break even or make a profit, but probably won’t be able to use that money to buy a similar home. Then there’s condo termination, a complex process in which the association dissolves.

In light of all this, Lopez said homebuyers should probably hold off on getting a condo for some time.

“Wait for things to settle down, wait for the assessments to be clarified, wait until you have more information,” she said. “And I believe that by 2026, everyone will know what they're buying.”

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Gabriella Pinos