Q: Over the past few months, I’ve heard a lot of discussion about reserve studies and condition surveys. Are these the same, and, if not, how do they differ, and why and when should our association obtain one?
A: This is a great question because it is not asked often enough. I cannot count the number of times I have responded to a condominium board’s request for a meeting to discuss their stated need for a reserve fund study only to find they actually needed something else. That something else could encompass a wide range of engineering services such as a full structural evaluation; a water infiltration study; and/or a plumbing or electrical system update.
Condo and HOA boards have a lot on their agenda for their periodic meetings. Issues regarding landscaping, by-law enforcement, assessment collections to name a few, so the need to spend money to update their last reserve study is not a popular item. Even though the Community Associations Institute (CAI) and the association’s property manager may recommend a reserve budget update every three to five years, the board members are not eager to look at the calendar.
In fact, most discussions about updating the reserve budget arises from some perceived maintenance problem and not the calendar. Perhaps it is the rise in complaints in water stained ceilings from leaking roofs, or poor curb appeal of the aging building facades, or the developing potholes in the roadways that create the agenda item requiring capital repairs and the analysis of the reserve budget.
With the guidance of an experienced property manager or knowledgeable committee member, the board will recognize the benefit of hiring a professional engineer (PE) and reserve specialist (RS). These professionals provide the most complete review of the facility’s common elements and will develop a reserve budget reflecting the future scope of repairs and associated cost estimates. With this understanding the board can prepare a Request for Proposal (RFP) and conduct interviews to hire a qualified firm—from there, things can start going wrong.
They go wrong because of miscommunication due to the lack of understanding of the industry’s language and terminology. Let us assume the condo’s primary concern is structural problems given the recent attention of the Surfside, Florida disaster. The communication problem starts with the engineer’s RFP interview during which the interviewee remarks to the board that one of the advantages of hiring an engineering firm to perform a reserve study is their structural engineers can comment on the potential structural distress issues found during the inspection of the building(s). This can be a point of communication disconnect and the beginning of unfulfilled client expectations.
In the engineer’s mind, he thought he was clear in telling the board his review of the structural elements would produce a report listing the structural problems found and the engineer’s recommendations of actions to be taken. What the members of the board may have heard was for the price of the reserve fund study they would receive an engineer’s structural evaluation of the condition of their facility with an estimate of repair costs to budget for their reserves and for a contractor.
A basic reserve study focuses on estimated remaining useful lives of existing common elements. When structural problems are known before or found during a reserve study, a condition study or assessment is needed to determine the soundness of the facility. This scope of work can be added to the reserve fund study or provided as a separate task. This study may call for inspection, material testing, engineering calculations, and more that are outside the scope of a reserve study. To avoid this, better questions and answers are needed on all sides of the issue.