Whose Problem is it, Anyway?

What to do when pipes burst, toilets leak and havoc is wreaked.

By: Helena Madden

It’s easy to feel as though things go wrong more often than they go right, especially in a condo/co-op. Balancing the many faces of a board, tackling and readjusting new resolutions and broaching unruly neighbors can certainly create a hectic living environment—to say nothing of the issue of liability.

Liability: Who’s to blame, and, more importantly, who’s to pay when things go wrong? After all, if a pipe based in one resident’s unit leaks into another, the unlucky victim will certainly want recompense for damages—and for their damp floorboards. But is this the responsibility of the resident to fix and fund, or the building?

Well, as is so often the case in a condo/co-op scenario, it depends on the building, the weather and the bylaws. That being said, there is an industry standard that, in most cases, the building itself ends up addressing the repair. For example, if an in-wall pipe bursts or leaks into a resident’s unit, the building must step in to fix the infrastructure. From there, it’s the resident’s responsibility to mop the floor and rearrange any wall hangings.

“Generally speaking, plumbing that services multiple units will be deemed to be a common element,” Attorney Samuel J. McNulty, Esq., of Hueston McNulty told the New Jersey Cooperator. “Plumbing that serves a specific unit will be deemed to be the responsibility of the unit owner. The liability will follow the maintenance responsibility.”

In other words, if an in-unit sink pipe breaks and starts to leak into another resident’s unit, this responsibility falls upon the unit owner to address and fix. If an in-wall pipe bursts or bubbles, the building must cough up the funds (and labor) to make the repair. Insurance can go a long way in both cases—take a ruptured toilet bowl, for example.

Let’s say the toilet in question is owned by a tenant who lives upstairs but is away for a week travelling. If they live in New York, they’re most likely travelling to their Florida home this time of year. Upon their return, they learn that said toilet has been leaking down into the neighbor’s unit below them—a result of a split at the bottom of the water tank. What results can be a battle of the insurance policies, and the upstairs neighbor most of all should hope that they have an adequate one in place. If not, a great deal of financial loss and even a potential lawsuit could follow.

It’s also worth noting that, in this case and in many others, it’s in a condo/co-op’s best interest to catch issues early. Addressing a leaky faucet or a faulty pipe is a pain, but it’s a much rosier alternative to completely replacing broken infrastructure. So don’t skimp on any expenses or time involved in smaller repairs—a proactive approach is always better than a reactive one. Especially if a reactive approach involves an attorney, water damage and the unabashed anger of residents.

The bottom line? Make sure everyone in a building is on the same page when it comes to the proprietary lease, bylaws and insurance. Any situation that involves water leakage will be messy regardless, so mitigating the chaos by making sure everyone is on the same page beforehand is essential. That way everyone can be ready when the floodgates open.


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