The condovirus

Condos are the entry door to home ownership for thousands. Hundreds of thousands. Most think they’re investing in real estate, but no dirt’s involved. No property. Owners own from the paint in. The rest of the building is their shared liability. That’s what condo or strata fees are for – to help pay for the cost of maintaining a structure worth millions. Plus insuring it.

If more condo buyers knew what they are buying into, many would freak. They’d bolt. And so they should. A liability disaster may be unfolding.

At first the crisis seemed remote and unique. Condo owners in Fort Mac facing disaster when premiums soared in a community that was attacked by wild fire. Property values plunging to near zero. Owners under water. Mortgages being cancelled.

Then it spread.

Premiums for condo corps in some Alberta centres spiked by 700% or more. Monthly fees escalated wildly as a result. Then last month every condo owner in the province became personally liable for up to $50,000 in potential payments. Condominium corps can now seek recovery of the deductible portion of an insurance claim to that level from any condo owner for damage originating in their unit – whether they caused it or not.

As one lawyer interprets it: “That means that if something happens in the unit and it’s not your fault — the toilet explodes, there’s water loss, water damage goes through to the floors below — and there’s a $50,000 deductible or a $25,000 deductible, the owners are now responsible for the deductible.”

But it gets worse. What if your condo building couldn’t get insurance at all? Then you couldn’t sell your unit. No buyer could get financing. Property values would collapse. Your own financing likely would not be renewed.

Which, as it turns, out, is exactly what’s happening in BC.

Catastrophic loss events like the 2016 Fort Mac fire, the blazes in central and northern BC or the 2013 Calgary flooding combined with climate change projections, changing weather patterns, escalating building and replacement costs and inflated real estate values (thanks to demographic demand and the mortgage stress test) have seriously goosed condo values, and lie at the heart of a liability crisis. Insurers are backing off. Risk has exploded. Most have no idea what may be coming.

In Burnaby, for example, one condo corp has seen the insurance premium escalate from $200,000 a year to over $800,000, resulting in a massive hike in monthly fees. Other developments have been unable to renew their policies at any price, cancelling sales of individual units since buyers can’t get a mortgage in an uninsured structure.

Says Tony Gioventu, executive director of the Condominium and Homeowners Association of B.C., “This will collapse our real estate industry because no one will be able to get mortgages and there will be no buyers and no sellers.” The buildings hardest hit are those where the most expensive units are located, plus any that have had recent insurance claims or where condo boards have neglected to keep up with big maintenance projects, fearing the impact of special assessments on condo owners.

In BC, the provincial government is being pressed to step in and legislate some kind of solution. Nationally the Insurance Bureau of Canada has engaged a risk manager to work with condo boards in finding ways of reducing their exposure. Nowhere in Canada is there any governmental cap on condo premiums, nor are insurers required to get approval for increases.

In Ontario the insurance issue is being called “a crisis’ by the Canadian Condominium Institute as a growing number of boards cannot find insurance, at any cost. The burden which could be imposed on individual condo owners is large as insurers reprice risk in a changed world. Already many of them, as first-time buyers, struggle with financing payments, property taxes, utilities and personal condo insurance as well as monthly corporation fees. The last thing they need is hundreds more a month in charges – or the potential of a huge deductible – as policies jump in cost.

What to do?

In Alberta every condo owner needs enough personal insurance to handle the cost of the potential $50,000 deductible now on their shoulders. Everywhere people with units must prepare for the certainty of rising monthly condo or strata fees, and perhaps a special annual assessment, as boards are hit with premiums they must pass on. It goes without saying as the cost of condo ownership escalates, property values will be impacted. Mortgage lenders know, and are already adjusting their own risk management.

Mostly, if you’re thinking about a condo purchase, think again. Be prepared to accept greater liability and have the capacity to absorb higher fees. Never, ever buy without requesting a status report from the condo board and having your lawyer parse it. That will show the state of insurance and should highlight developing issues. If you already own, ask the condo board for a copy of the current certificate of insurance – it will outline deductible costs.

Sorry, kids. Mom might have been wrong. You should have rented.

 

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