Keeping Damage to a Minimum After Pipes Burst

March 15, 2014
A burst pipe can damage several building units. Residents should shut off the water and call their insurance carrier. (Michael Blann, Getty Images / March 14, 2014)

A burst pipe can damage several building units. Residents should shut off the water and call their insurance carrier. (Michael Blann, Getty Images / March 14, 2014)

The winter’s arctic cold and the inevitable spring thaw are stressing many plumbing pipes past their breaking points.

The ordeal is more complicated when the break occurs in a condominium or town home than it is in a single-family home. That’s because multiple owners and insurers, each with varying interests, usually are involved.

Whether the flow is gushing or trickling, a community association with a broken pipe must take steps to stay afloat. The first one is to shut off the water.

“Take care of the emergency as quickly as possible, and iron out the details later,” said Sheila Malchiodi, account manager at QCi Restoration in Elgin. “The goal is to minimize the damage. A delay can cost you tens of thousands of dollars or more after the fact.”

Failure to minimize the damage could breach your insurance policy, she added.

If the break is in a vacant condo, or if the owner is not home, the association can enter the unit, said association attorney Dawn Moody of Keough & Moody PC in Naperville.

“The Illinois Condominium Property Act gives the board the authority to enter a unit in the event of an emergency, which a pipe burst clearly is,” she said.

Town homes are trickier; the association’s access rights are governed by the declaration. Some permit emergency access, and others do not.

Call the police or fire department to get in rather than wait for a legal opinion, Moody advised.

Also, call your insurance carrier as soon as you are aware of a problem, so an adjuster can be assigned, said Cindy Fitts, account executive at CISA Insurance in Elgin.

Many breaks affect property owned by the association and one or more unit owners. For example, a break in the wall between two units could soak drywall, wallpaper and carpeting on both sides and perhaps the units below.

Condo associations are responsible for insuring the common elements and limited common elements, including the bare walls, floor and ceiling of the units plus the developer-installed fixtures. Owners are responsible for insuring their improvements, floor and wall coverings and personal property.

Insurance requirements for town homes are spelled out in their declarations.

Malchiodi advises picking a single contractor to handle the restoration, regardless of which parts are the association’s responsibility and which are the owner’s responsibility.

“Using one contractor streamlines the process, keeps the communication clear and typically completes the process within the projected time frame,” she said. “Delays put stress on the homeowner, board members and property manager.”

“If the property is vacant, do the bare minimum to protect the common elements and other units,” Moody said. “If there is a lender, request that it take steps to protect its collateral.”

Insurance will pay much of the cost, but deductibles tend to run high these days.

If the project total is anywhere near that amount, you might want to skip putting in a claim.

Depending on the size of the claim and your claims frequency, the loss will affect your future insurance costs, Fitts said.

“Most carriers are looking at five years of history to determine renewal premiums,” she said. “Right now, we are not seeing premiums go down.”

If you file a claim, condo law gives associations three ways to handle the deductible: pay it as a common expense, assess the owner in whose unit the damage originated (after providing proper notice and the opportunity for a hearing) or charge the owners whose units were damaged.

Town home associations must refer to their governing documents for guidance.

Moody’s advice is to establish an upfront policy that addresses who pays the deductible under which types of circumstances.

“It helps avoid arguments later,” she said.

A final tip from Fitts: “Make sure you know what insurance coverages you have. It’s too late at the time of loss to make a change.”

This post originally appeared on on March 14, 2014.

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