Florida’s New Condo Inspection Law Protects Real Estate Owners — at a Cost

Last year’s partial collapse of a condominium building in Surfside, Florida, that tragically killed 98 people, led to a call for stricter inspection regulations. Gov. Ron DeSantis responded recently by signing a law with much tighter inspection requirements.

Under the new state law, all residential building three stories or taller must undergo a detailed structural inspection after 30 years and then every 10 years after that. Buildings within three miles of the coast — where salty ocean water can be highly corrosive to structural components — face even tougher rules. They have to be inspected after 25 years and every seven years after that.

Whenever structural damage is found, buildings are required to undergo a more thorough secondary inspection. The results of the inspections have to be made available to unit owners and local government officials.

In addition to the inspection rules, the new law requires condominium associations to evaluate their reserve funds every 10 years to make sure they have enough cash to cover the cost of major repairs.

The new law, which is due to go into effect in January 2025, could lead to a substantial increase in condo fees and special assessments. Depending on the size of a building, professional engineering inspections can cost tens of thousands of dollars. And buildings that have not maintained sufficient reserves could face large special assessments to cover the cost of repairs identified by structural engineers and/or to bring underfunded reserves into compliance.

With sea level rise and stronger tropical storms adding stress to buildings located near the coast, real estate owners and buyers in Florida should be encouraged that the new law will improve safety and reduce the odds of another Surfside-like collapse. But, for budgeting purposes, they need to be aware of a building’s age, inspection status, potential repair issues, and reserves status. Condo board members, meeting minutes and financials should provide a clear picture of a building’s situation.

Other states may have inspection and reserves requirements similar to Florida’s that need to be considered when owners and buyers are involved in coastal real estate located within their borders.

Florida’s New Statewide Office of Resilience Gets Sea Level Rise Half Right

This week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation to create a new Statewide Office of Resilience. The office is charged with creating an action plan to protect the state highway system from sea level rise flooding. It’s also responsible for creating a prioritize list of sites, such as medical centers, airports, utilities and emergency operation centers, that need to be hardened against rising seas.

The new law strengthens a 2021 law that required the state Department of Environmental Protection to develop a sea level rise resilience plan and a grant program to help cities and counties pay for infrastructure improvements.

While Florida officials should be applauded for taking the initiative and combatting the sea level rise that threatens coastal cities and towns, there’s a glaring omission. The law does nothing to reduce the burning of coal, oil and natural gas as well as agricultural sources of greenhouse gases that are driving global warming and sea level rise. This is kind of like working to put out a house fire without addressing the arsonist who’s flipping matches at it. This oversight will ultimately prove costly and disastrous for a low elevation state with coastal communities that are already flooding due to sea level rise and ever-stronger storm surges.

Florida’s half-way there on climate change and sea level rise. With billions of dollars worth of real estate under threat of inundation, let’s hope the state takes the next step and addresses what’s driving the problem.

Earth Day is a Call to Action!

Repeating “Happy Earth Day” to family and friends today isn’t enough. The holiday is, in fact, a call to action for us all to do what we can to save the planet from climate change and pollution.

For years, Earth has been flashing a RED ALERT about global warming. Oceans, the atmosphere and the land are heating up. As a result, we’re seeing mega-droughts, hotter and longer heat waves, fierce wildfires, stronger more damaging storms, rapid snow and ice melt in Antarctica and Greenland and sea level rise flooding.

To stop global warming, we need to curtail the burning of fossil fuels — coal, oil and natural gas — that release greenhouse gases. We can all play a role by conserving energy. Here’s how:

1. Drive only when necessary, consolidate trips and share the ride.

2. Purchase the most fuel efficient vehicles we can afford and ride public transportation when available.

3. Weather-proof our homes and offices.

4. Buy energy-efficient appliances.

5. Turn off lights and electronics that aren’t in use.

6. Buy only goods we actually need.

7. Eat a more plant-based diet.

8. Vote ONLY  for candidates who are dedicated to fighting climate change.

The last point is critically important. Leaders on the federal, state and local levels are setting the policies that will (or won’t) allow us to reduce and nearly eliminate the use of fossil fuels. We need strong, motivated leaders to get the job done.

Together, we can prevent the climate change catastrophe we’re headed for if we don’t act aggressively to combat it. The time to for us all to start is NOW!

Sea Level Rise Flooding Isn’t The Only Climate Change Symptom Vexing Coastal Real Estate

Climate change is posing many challenges to coastal communities. Sea level rise flooding is one of the more obvious symptoms of a warming planet. Other problems include longer, hotter heat waves and droughts. This time of year in South Florida, sargassum seaweed season begins and it can run sporadically right through the fall.

The smelly, scratchy seaweed washes ashore by the ton on hundreds of miles of beaches in South Florida, Mexico and throughout the Caribbean islands. The seaweed drives tourists away and could one day threaten local real estate markets when buyers get fed up.

Scientists say seaweed blooms in the Caribbean and off Brazil are getting worse every year due to global warming heating up the ocean and humans using too much fertilizer on farms and lawns. Runoff containing animal waste from large-scale farms is also a problem.

Coastal communities are employing a number of methods to combat the seaweed. Some plow it into the sand, others truck it away at great expense. Some communities are even exploring ways to harvest and process the seaweed before it ever reaches land.

The sargassum seaweed problem is expected to get worse until humans stop or at least cut back the use of greenhouse gas producing fossil fuels and get water pollution under control. Real estate buyers and owners in coastal communities need to keep an eye on the seaweed problem as it could one day impact the value of their properties.

Study: Will The Wealthy Displace Working Class Residents From Their Traditional Inland Neighborhoods When Sea Level Rise Floods Coastal Real Estate?

Sea level rise flooding, like all natural disasters, tends to harm the people who can least afford it the most. In many cases, low income residents tend to own coastal real estate that isn’t well-protected from rising seas and they may be forced by high costs to go without flood insurance. A new study released this week concluded that low income residents inland from the coast could also face extreme hardship as wealthier coastal real estate owners are forced to abandon their properties and move inland.

The study, titled “Addressing Climate Driven Displacement: Planning for Sea Level Rise In Florida’s Coastal Communities and Affordable Housing in Inland Communities in the Face of Climate Gentrification”, was produced by The Leroy Collins Institute at Florida State University. Researchers operated on the assumption that the day will arrive — likely toward the end of this century — when investing in expensive infrastructure — such as elevating properties and installing pumps — will no longer be enough to save sea level rise-inundated coastal properties. When this happens, they predict that higher income coastal residents will move inland to the higher elevation areas now inhabited by working class Floridians.

As they do this, lower income residents will “face increasing pressures to relocate, either voluntarily (eg. selling their homes and businesses) or involuntarily (eg. being evicted for redevelopment projects or unable to afford increasing rents). Experts refer to the process of the wealthy forcing out working class residents as “climate gentrification”.

The study’s researchers said they examined the issue to see if Florida communities are preparing for this type of population displacement. What they found is that with coastal displacement more likely to occur later in this century, local governments aren’t doing anything now to address the inequity that will likely occur when wealthy real estate owners begin to move inland from the coast. They’re calling on “Florida’s policy makers, planners, public officials, advocates, and developers (to) lay the groundwork for a more equitable transition to a new reality imposed by climate change and sea level rise.”

In their conclusion they write: “Florida’s coastal communities can buy time before coastal displacement is overwhelming and shore up policies and investment in lower income neighborhoods to minimize future displacement through gentrification there. It is an imperfect solution to an insurmountable problem, but it reduces the pace and scale of the disruption and reduces the harm faced by those who are likely to suffer most.”

As a resident of South Florida, I’m already seeing gentrification taking place, not due to sea level rise, but due to wealthy northerners’ insatiable hunger for South Florida real estate. The city I live in is upgrading the infrastructure in traditionally working class neighborhoods located inland not to protect the affordable housing there but to make it easier for developers to purchase properties and build higher end housing there. Lower income property owners forced to compete with the wealthy in this situation are also made more vulnerable to displacement by property taxes that rise as their real estate appreciates, escalating insurance costs, and general inflation for things like home maintenance, food and utilities.

This harsh reality makes it easy to imagine that climate gentrification will become a reality when coastal areas can no longer be defended from sea level rise flooding. The researchers state in their report that they’re not sure there’s the political will present to protect the working class from being displaced. From what I’ve seen, it doesn’t exist and certainly not on the scale that’s needed. It will be interesting to see if the will to protect the working class — who are needed for a healthy economy — develops as lower income residents are increasingly displaced by people moving here from out of state. If it does, it may increase the odds of a more equitable retreat from the coast due to sea level rise in the coming decades.

New Miami-Dade County Law Makes it Easier for Buyers to Evaluate Condo Building Maintenance and Reserves

The tragic collapse of a the condo building in Surfside, Florida, that claimed 98 lives continues to force changes in the way real estate is bought and sold all across the country. This month, Freddie Mac and Fannie May, the quasi-government organizations that back many of the nations mortgages, began requiring condo associations to answer detailed questionnaires about a building’s maintenance, repairs, and reserves to determine overall safety and financial soundness as part of the process lenders use to evaluate mortgage applications.

On Tuesday, the Miami Dade County Commission took transparency a step further and unanimously passed a new law requiring condo and homeowner’s associations to file detailed financial and maintenance records for inclusion in an online library. Currently, Florida real estate law requires sellers to provide buyers with these documents only upon request AFTER a sales contract is executed. The buyer is then given three days from receipt of the information to cancel the contract if they don’t like what they see.

Some real estate agents told the Miami Herald they’re relieved that the new database is being created. They complained that condo associations and homeowners associations often made it difficult for sellers and buyers to access the relevant documents and too often they were delivered incomplete.

One potential shortcoming of the law is that the associations are only required to file the documents on an annual basis, which leaves the possibility that the information will be outdated by the time a buyer receives it. This could lead to a buyer not being aware of such critical information as a costly special assessment that is under review or approved since the last annual filing. Note to Buyers: Still request the latest condo docs and financials when conducting a review.

Overall, the move toward greater transparency regarding real estate is a huge plus for buyers and owners, especially when sea level rise is already causing maintenance and funding challenges for condo developments located on or near the coast. Regardless of a coastal state’s laws, buyers everywhere need to take a look at condo association and homeowner’s association documents and financials before they commit to close a deal.

When We Play Politics with Climate Change, Everyone Loses

Two years ago, the first case of Covid-19 was identified in the U.S. Since that fateful day, 860 thousand Americans have lost their lives to the virus and millions have been sickened. Unfortunately, politics played a role in many of these casualties. We can’t afford let this happen when it comes to the climate change crisis and sea level rise flooding.

At the national level, President Biden took office a year ago. One of his stated goals was to pass the Build Back Better bill, which includes $555 billion to address climate change. Included in the legislation are projects that would promote renewable energy and clean transportation to help the country dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2030.

Unfortunately, Build Back Better has been all but killed by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va, who has strong ties to his home state’s coal industry. Clearly his decision was made for his own political survival, not for the survival of the planet we all call home.

We’re seeing political shenanigans at the state level, too. In Florida, for example, Gov. Ron DeSantis has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in projects to protect real estate and critical infrastructure from sea level rise flooding. Among the projects being funded are new sea walls, pump stations, and stormwater sewers, along with the restoration of crumbling canal banks. This is good for the low-elevation state that’s extremely at-risk from global warming-fueled rising tides and more powerful hurricanes with stronger storm surges.

Unfortunately, Gov. DeSantis undermined his responsible approach to sea level rise flooding by injecting clearly partisan political venom when it came to addressing the root cause of sea level rise flooding: the burning of fossil fuels that release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

During the December news conference to announce his sea level rise infrastructure improvement initiative, the governor wouldn’t use terms like sea level rise and climate change, both of which could inflame his supporters — many of whom believe they’re hoaxes or minor problems. When a reporter asked Gov. DeSantis about global warming, he said, “What I’ve found is when people start talking about things like global warming they typically use that as a pretext to do a bunch of left-wing things that they would want to do anyways. And so we’re not doing any left-wing stuff.”

It’s pretty clear that the governor defines “left-wing stuff” as any actions that would reduce the nation’s reliance on fossil fuels.

Scientists say the only way to avoid the worst-case scenario of over eight feet of sea level rise by 2100 is to dramatically cut back on fossil fuel consumption. Gov. DeSantis’s approach to building defenses against sea level rise flooding but ignoring the root causes driving the tides ever higher, essentially dooms all of Florida’s coastal communities but especially those south of Lake Okeechobee to being potentially wiped off the map by the end of this century.

If the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that playing politics with scientifically established facts during a global crisis is dangerous. For example, a National Public Radio analysis found that the counties that have suffered the greatest number of Covid-related deaths were those that were the most susceptible to misinformation from hyper-partisan politicians and media outlets. Basically, despite scientific evidence that vaccination saves lives, the misinformed residents chose not to get vaccinated and they paid with their lives at a number many times higher than those who got jabbed.

It has to be noted here that Gov. DeSantis has consistently downplayed the use of proven methods of reining in Covid-19 — vaccines, boosters, masks and social distancing — and pushed treatments that can be used AFTER people become infected. An LA Times analysis published during the heat of the delta outbreak late last summer, determined that his approach came at the cost of thousands of unnecessary deaths.

Taking a similar, non-scientific, politically-charged approach to climate change will have disastrous consequences for humanity today and for many generations to come. Without action to reduce the release of greenhouse gases today, we will certainly see a worsening of the droughts, wildfires, heat waves, extreme storms, and sea level rise flooding that have plagued the nation lately for decades to come.

The bottom line here is if we want to save our real estate and our way of life, we need to reach a consensus based on scientific fact, not political maneuvering, and invest in policies that will yield real results, real fast. If we don’t, we’re going to learn the hard way that when we try to gaslight the Earth, which is subject to basic laws of physics, we’re the one who will gets burned.

Sea Level Rise Increases Conflict Over Public Access to Private Beaches

When buyers purchase real estate on the beach, they often assume they own the entire stretch of sand from their door to the water’s edge, but that’s not always the case. Property owners in states like California and Florida own the beach up to the point where water laps at their beach at high tide. The public is allowed to walk in the wet sand that emerges between mean high and low tide. States like New Jersey, North Carolina, Oregon and Texas, on the other hand, allow public access to all beaches.

State laws, however, aren’t always the last word when it comes to beach access. Federal law requires coastal communities to provide public access to beaches that have been restored using federal funds. Public access doesn’t end until a beach is eroded away again. (This article by Thomas Ankerson, director of the Conservation Clinic at the University of Florida College of Law, does a great job of explaining the legal issues surrounding beach access.)

As sea level rise causes more beach erosion, property owners are finding beach walkers ever closer to their back doors. In some communities, this is increasing tension that already existed between property owners who believe they have a right to the quiet enjoyment of their stretch of beach and the public who believe no one should have exclusive right to the sand.

In Florida, the state with the most beaches, battles are breaking out between some beachfront property owners and the public. A recent example is a conflict emerging in Palm Beach in South Florida. According to an article published this week by WPTV, a West Palm Beach TV station, private property owners in the tony resort community are posting poles that tell beachgoers where their private beach starts and warning them not to trespass.

Christine Stapleton, a form Palm Beach Post reporter and beach walker, posted a photo of a pole on Instagram. “Legally, these landowners do own the beach up to the mean high tide line,” she wrote in her post. “And Article X, Section 11 of the Florida Constitution clarifies that the state holds the seaward of the mean high-tide line (MHTL) in trust for the public.”

Stapleton then goes on to question the authorities’ role in allowing private property owners to unilaterally claim a section of the beach that should be open to the public. “So why does the Town of Palm Beach and Florida Department of Environmental Protection allow wealthy landowners to decide the location of the mean high tide line?” she asks. “Why does the town and DEP allow these landowners to decide when a public beach should be closed because of erosion and put up poles declaring the eroded stretch of beach private and claiming ownership?”

Palm Beach’s town manager told WPTV that the property owners need to follow state guidelines when they post poles.

As sea level rise continues, conflict between private property owners and beachgoers is bound to increase. It’s important for real estate buyers and owners to know their rights so they don’t overstep their boundaries and for the public to know where they’re allowed to tread so they don’t trespass. As Christine Stapleton told WPTV, “My feeling is let’s get together and make this work.”

Another Florida City Passes a Seawall Height Ordinance to Fend Off Sea Level Rise Flooding

As sea level continues to rise and flood real estate, coastal communities are starting to wake up to the fact that a laissez-faire approach to seawalls won’t cut it any more. If the height and maintenance of seawalls isn’t regulated by cities and towns, there’s a chance floodwater is going to course over the lowest seawall in a series and flood the owner’s and neighbors’ properties, not to mention critical roads and infrastructure.

This week, the city commission in Delray Beach — located in southern Palm Beach County, Florida — responded to sea level rise flooding from inadequate seawalls along the Intracoastal Waterway. By a unanimous vote, the commission approved seawall ordinances similar to a breakthrough seawall ordinance passed two years ago in Broward County, Florida, that covered Fort Lauderdale and other coastal cities and towns.

Delray Beach’s new regulations close a gap that allowed private property owners free range over their seawalls, even if they were deficient and causing flooding problems for the surrounding area.

“The city is where the rubber meets the road,” Vice-Mayor Shirley Johnson said. “The county isn’t going to say this is going on. The state isn’t going to do it. And the federal government? They’re so far away they don’t even halfway know what’s going on, even though the Army Corps of Engineers does their level best. … So the city is left to do the work of enforcing, monitoring, being aware.”

The seawall regulations require the owners of new construction properties to build seawalls 4.2 feet over the base flood elevation as identified in FEMA Flood Insurance Rate maps. If the owner builds a seawall under that height, it must be designed to allow the construction of a height extender to bring it in line with the regulation.

City officials said they don’t plan to aggressively enforce the seawall regulations. According to the regulations, however, if flooding is reported from a deficient seawall, the city will require the owner to “demonstrate progress toward repairing the cited defect within 60 days of receiving notice from the city, and complete any necessary repairs within 365 days of receiving notice.” Property owners could face fines if they fail to meet the requirements.

In addition to the seawall height and maintenance requirements, the new regulations require sellers to disclose to buyers that the property of interest is subject to the new ordinances. The following language must be included in sales contracts: “This real estate is located in a tidally influenced area. The owner may be required by county or municipal ordinance to meet minimum tidal flood barrier elevation standards during construction or substantial repair or substantial rehabilitation to the property or the seawalls, banks, berms, and similar infrastructure or when required to abate nuisance flooding.”

With sea level rise continuing and, quite frankly, accelerating, more coastal cities and towns are bound to consider similar seawall regulations. Real estate sellers and owners and real estate agents in coastal areas need to stay aware of what’s happening in their communities as the regulations can have costly consequences.

The cost of building or repairing a seawall can run well into the tens of thousands of dollars or even higher, depending on the length of the seawall and the materials used. In addition, acquiring permits for seawall construction from federal, state, county and local governments can require a fair amount of paperwork and take longer than 365 day project completion limit.

Sea Level Rise Flooding is Forcing Coastal Communities to Pass Seawall Height Mandates for Real Estate Owners

We’ve all heard the saying “A chain is only as strong as its weakest link.” The same is true for seawalls. A coastal community can strive to build a solid line of seawalls high enough to prevent ever-worsening sea level rise flooding, but if one public or private seawall in the series isn’t high enough to deal with the the next extreme tide event, floodwaters can inundate nearby real estate.

This reality is forcing communities to consider seawall height requirement ordinances similar to a law passed a few years ago in Broward County, Florida. According to the county’s “Build It High, Keep It Dry” brochure: “All property owners must maintain a tidal flood barrier in good repair. A tidal flood barrier is presumed in disrepair if it allows tidal waters to flow unimpeded through or over the barrier and on to adjacent property or rights-of-way. If a property is reported and documented to cause flooding of adjacent roads for neighboring properties it will be cited and required to prevent flood trespass within one year.”

The county says the seawall ordinance, the first in Florida, benefits property owners because it encourages them to budget for seawall adaptations before flooding occurs, which also protects their property value. A list of action steps recommended by the county includes determining the property elevation, gathering construction quotes, considering financing options, hiring an experienced contractor (who will get the required permits from the city, county, state and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers), and actually constructing the new seawall or flood barrier.

The impact of the new seawall ordinance on real estate owners is substantial. For example, a property owner can be fined for failing to maintain seawalls that prevent flooding. They are also required to disclose to buyers that seawalls are covered by the new law. A contract for sale in an affected area must state the following: “This real estate is located in a tidally influenced area. The owner may be required by county or municipal ordinance to meet minimum tidal flood barrier elevation standards during construction or substantial repair or substantial rehabilitation of seawalls, banks, berms, and similar infrastructure when required to abate nuisance flooding.”

Buyers, sellers, owners and real estate agents need to pay attention to the passage and implementation of seawall height requirement laws in their communities. The cost to repair or replace a seawall can run into tens of thousands of dollars — or even more — depending on factors such as the length of the seawall, its design, and the construction materials used. Real estate agents should encourage buyers to have seawalls inspected before submitting an offer. They should also make sure that sellers include any required language regarding local seawall ordinances in sales contracts.

Owners, too, should consider getting their seawalls inspected to make sure they meet the local codes. Inspection results will also help them to budget for any current or future repairs that may be needed. Seawalls typically last 30-50 years before they need to be replaced, but sea level rise, which is accelerating as the climate warms, may shorten their lifespan.

As with all laws that attempt to address global warming and sea level rise flooding, the new seawall height ordinances are bound to result in property owner lawsuits. The truth is, however, that lawsuits are not going to stop sea level rise — reducing the release of greenhouse gases will — and, ultimately, someone is going to have to pay the freight to upgrade seawalls to prevent flooding to extend the time that coastal communities will be inhabitable. Buyers and owners need to assess the cost to make informed real estate decisions.

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