As the pace of condo, loft and townhouse construction continues unabated, some buyers are discovering myriad problems with their "carefree" homes.
Eager for a carefree lifestyle, Sandy Obermiller proudly moved into her new condominium across from City Hall in St. Louis Park on Thanksgiving Day 2002. She had purchased it a year earlier, before the development was even a hole in the ground, and was promised a luxury condominium for her $250,000 investment.
What she got was a condo where she can hear neighbors talking, phones ringing next door and other people's washing machines draining. The windows and basement leak. The deck floor is failing. The building looks unfinished.
"I want what I originally bought into," said Obermiller. "I feel taken."
Obermiller, along with other buyers at Fern Hill Place condominiums, sued the building's developer, architect, builder and subcontractors. Last month they settled for $1.85 million.
Buyers paying a premium for lofts, condos and townhouses expect high-quality construction and quiet. But often what they get behind the gleaming surfaces and lofty ceilings is an ordinary apartment in which owners can hear the clack-clack of high heels overhead and smell cigarette smoke from five floors below and moldy odors emanating from electrical outlets.
In the past few years, multifamily housing has made up more than half of all new housing built in the Twin Citieis metro area. Last year alone saw almost 10,000 new attached units built, mostly condominiums and townhouses.
"There are a lot of people trying to meet the demand for property who don't know what they're doing," said McGregor Pearce, a St. Paul environmental health consultant and expert on mold and indoor air quality. "It's a savage, cost-competitive world," he said, "but you can't just slap them together."
'Code' is a low standard
The building code for condos and lofts, which is different than for stand-alone homes, is a low standard that doesn't always translate into high-quality construction. Nor does it ensure that all units in a building will meet even minimal standards.
"For all practical purposes, actually for all purposes, apartments and condos are constructed the same way," said Mike Godfrey, with the Minnesota Codes and Standards Division. "The only difference is one you own and the other one you rent."
The result is that some buyers are paying top dollar for what amounts to an apartment with cosmetic enhancements. And unlike renters, they can't just pick up and move without risking a financial hit. Some at Fern Hill Place tried, but ended up selling for less than they paid, said Andrew Marshall, the lawyer representing the owners.
It becomes a big-stakes game: "At one arbitration, there were 35 lawyers sitting in the room," said Steven Orfield, a Minneapolis acoustics consultant and expert witness in several multimillion-dollar lawsuits.
That's not to say that all condos, lofts and townhouses have trouble. Builders and developers can and do build beyond code, delivering buildings that don't leak and where odors and noise aren't a problem. It's just difficult to know how to get one. Those selling attached units to buyers who've been living in single-family homes apparently aren't helping matters.
"Salesmen are saying it'll be as quiet as your home," Orfield said. "That's a lie. It's not as quiet or private as a house."
Even buyers who expect to hear some outdoor noise in a busy urban setting can be surprised by the noise generated indoors: chairs dragging across the floor and footfalls overhead, a thumping bass from the stereo next door.
That noise, called structure-borne noise, is transmitted through building components and can include plumbing noises, such as showers and drains. Certain plumbing connections will even cause neighbors' voices to come up through a distant toilet.
Noisy heating equipment is another structure-borne sound that, in one court case, required a $2 million fix. Add a super sound system to the structure and you can get earthquake-like vibrations that rattle the windows and pictures on the walls.
"I feel like I live in the corridor of the cineplex, with all the rumbling and roaring noise of action movies shaking my walls and nerves," said Nancy Miller of her Minneapolis condo. "It's not exactly home sweet home."
Thick concrete is no solution
Jennifer Peterson-Kaster would agree. In her previous townhouse, Peterson-Kaster said she rarely heard her neighbors in the five years she lived there. Now, in a more expensive townhouse in Shakopee, she can hear the neighbor's TV through the walls. Worse is the pounding music from the new neighbors' teenage daughter.
Contrary to common belief, a concrete building isn't the answer. A feasibility study for possible uses of the downtown Minneapolis Armory found that you can hear high heels through a 12-inch concrete floor that once accommodated military tanks, according to Orfield.
Besides structure, noise can also be carried through the air. That's the sound of neighbors' loud parties, alarm clocks ringing and music playing. How airborne noise encroaches on others is explained, in part, by a recent two-year study of Twin Cities condos and apartments conducted by CEE, a Minneapolis nonprofit organization specializing in energy issues and researching secondhand smoke.
The units aren't as separate as they appear, the study found. Gaps and spaces in walls and ceilings around electrical, plumbing, heating and air conditioning connections are common and they permit air to move up, down and sideways. That means neighbors share air, and with it comes noise, odors and cigarette smoke -- but not necessarily from the next-door neighbors; air transfer is capricious.
These findings were eye-opening for veteran condo manager Alice Finley, whose building was one of those studied.
"We didn't know that Henrietta on Floor 10 was getting Phillip's smoke from Floor Three," she said. "We were baffled." As it turned out, there was nothing the management team could do short of tearing into the building and redoing it, she said.
It's not just smoke that frays nerves. An owner in one new condo wanted out because of the garlic his neighbors used in cooking. "It was driving him nuts," said the study's co-author, Dave Bohac. Cooking odors are a big issue in multicultural buildings, Finley said.
And price doesn't ensure better air sealing. Bohac said that a two-year-old luxury condo building was one of the leakier ones in the study.
The details of air sealing and indoor air quality aren't on developers' radar, said Marilou Cheple, a former builder and home inspector who teaches at the University of Minnesota. "Nobody makes them do it, so my goodness, why would they?" she said.
Carbon monoxide streaks
In addition to household odors, air moving around a building can carry soot and carbon monoxide if the attached garage isn't properly sealed and vented for exhaust. Finley recalled that in one of her buildings with an underground garage, people in the units above kept complaining about mysterious streaking on the walls and carpet. It was soot particles from exhaust entering the units, probably along with carbon monoxide.
Sound -- either airborne or structure-borne -- can be nicely muted with high-performance walls and ceiling structures. The trouble iis, state code doesn't require field testing of walls and ceilings to ensure they meet code, which, even at that, is a minimal standard that won't stop noise complaints, according to a code official.
In Minneapolis, buildings with eight or more units need field testing. However, only the first few units usually are tested. If they meet code, the rest of the units can be built without further testing, said Dan Callahan with the Minneapolis Inspections Department.That doesn't mean they're all going to be built as well, he said. Inspectors only do visual checks. Subsequent units commonly "flunk code," Orfield said.
"You aren't as careful if you aren't being tested," he said.
As a result, lofts, condos and townhouses can suffer water and mold problems.
"I've seen lots of abatement projects," said mold specialist Pearce, who once located the problem in a Minneapolis luxury building by sniffing the outlets. "We used to make buildings dry and durable," he said. "It seems we have forgotten a lot of it."
Pearce sometimes sees the right materials used but the wrong installation methods in construction, and vice versa. A lapse in either case can lead to leaky windows, rotting decks and ice dams. These are easily $10,000 repairs per unit, he said. But associations often are reluctant to do them because they're underfunded and the builder and developer have limited liability.
To fix water, noise or odor problems the right way, owners often have to do it themselves or band together. That's what the owners at Fern Hill Place did. After raising association fees threefold, they ultimately hired an attorney and sued.
In Peterson-Kaster's case, the noise problem was resolved with no lawsuit -- she got new neighbors.
"They are much better," she said. "But I fear who will move in when they move out."