Condos are generally safe, but there are significant risks to living in a condo such as the entire building collapsing due to an earthquake. During earthquakes, condos are far more dangerous due to the size of the building and the challenge of evacuation.
There are other significant risks you should consider whilst living in a condo. Within this article, we break down just how safe condo living really is.
After the tragic collapse of a condo in Miami, most apartment owners and potential tenants are anxious about the safety of their buildings.
Due to the latest improvements in codes and inspection policies, the probability that tall buildings fall is quite slim. Condos are generally safe to live in. And they’re often much more convenient than houses.
There are a few points to consider though to minimize risks. This starts with choosing the right location, making sure the building is structurally sound, and learning what to do during a natural disaster.
What Are the Dangers of Living in a Condo?
Living in a condo is mostly safe, and tenants usually enjoy a host of benefits that house owners rarely have. However, there are some dangers that owners and condo renters should be aware of.
● Evacuation in case of duress is quite difficult in condos and highrise buildings.
● Search and rescue teams cannot access most parts of a collapsed tall building.
● Illegal structural modifications especially in the lower floors or foundation.
● The owners of the condo might be reluctant to perform the required repairs.
● Maintaining condos is quite costly, so many urgent items are postponed or ignored.
● Tenants need to keep an eye on the safety of the whole building, not just their apartments.
● Coordinating the needs of all the tenants might be difficult and sometimes conflicting.
● Condos in places of high seismic or climatic activity are more vulnerable to failure.
● If the contractors used subpar building materials this could increase structural integrity significantly.
● There are other risks associated with living in condos like the relative ease that strangers could get into the building. Security is a major issue.
How Many Buildings Collapse in a Year?
Recently, there were calls for raising the bar to the highest possible limit for civil and structural engineers to practice in the US. One of the main reasons is that buildings collapse. Placing higher demands for licensing professionals seems to be the right step for avoiding that.
Every year an average of 8 buildings collapse somewhere around the globe. These tragic incidents cause around 340 fatalities annually. In the past 50 years, approximately180 buildings tragically failed. This is according to the Disasters Doc Organization.
The US has had its share of some of the deadliest building failures in history. From 1920 to 2020 there were at least a dozen incidents of highrise buildings collapsing. Many more 4-story buildings and houses faced similarly tragic events, but the casualties were significantly fewer.
Are Condos Safer Than Houses?
Generally speaking, the integrity of the structures of both condos and houses should be equal. However, in practice, we find that there are many discrepancies.
The building codes applied in the case of condos are much more stringent than those used in houses. Thus, one should expect that condos would be far more resilient.
Additionally, local authorities often run more inspections on condos than on houses.
Evacuation in Case of Emergency
Safety isn’t just in the ruggedness of the buildings though. There are other factors that directly impact personal safety. For example, the ease of exiting in case of emergencies.
Clearly, it would be much easier to evacuate a house (particularly a bungalow) than a condo. It’s an unfortunate fact that buildings often collapse in mere minutes, so there’s very little time to get out of a failing building. Especially, when the elevators and stairs are inaccessible.
Heavily populated condos are automatically risky. And this gets even more critical at night when a large number of apartment owners are at home. Also, if the condo houses a big party or a major conference where extra people are inside.
The materials used in building houses are also typically lighter than the heavy concrete used in erecting large buildings. Thus, the damages caused by collapsing structures in condos are far more deadly than those in houses.
Responding to Signs of Trouble
Quick response to signs of danger is also a determining factor of safety. In a large building, it’s difficult to spot red flags in the foundations or critical structures. And even when one of the owners or tenants reports these findings, taking serious action could take a while.
This isn’t the case for house owners, who are better positioned to notice odd cracks anywhere around their homes. They also take action right away whenever they sense that something is off.
The Cost of Preventive and Corrective Maintenance
Another factor that affects safety is the amount of money available for preventive and corrective maintenance. Condos require large sums of money to maintain the integrity of the various structural elements.
Apartment owners have to pay for the upkeep of the whole building, not just their own places. The financial burden could become prohibitively large, to the point that urgent repairs are ignored. This is not the case for houses, where the costs are significantly lower.
Can Condos Collapse?
After the collapse of the Surfside condo in Miami, everyone now knows that condos can and do collapse.
Proximity to the ocean is often a threat to buildings. Countering the aggressive effects of the high humidity, salty air, and excessive rust of metallic components isn’t easy. Buildings get even more vulnerable after natural disasters like earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, landslides, or tornadoes.
Condo managers need to spend huge amounts of money on inspection, maintenance, and repairs every year, which isn’t always possible.
What makes the situation even worse, is when the condos aren’t built using good quality materials, or if there are serious structural faults in the foundations.
How Often Do Tall Buildings Collapse?
Many structural engineers and inspection officers would say that the probability of tall buildings collapsing is extremely rare.
While the majority of experts acknowledge the serious concerns of condo owners, they still have confidence that the Surfside Condo tragedy is an isolated event. Some even say that the probability of getting struck by lightning is higher than watching another tall building collapse.
Where Is the Safest Place to Buy a Condo?
Until recently, the best cities and finest neighborhoods to invest in real estate had to do with luxury criteria. The main points to consider had to do with return on investment, the potential for growth, a booming economy, thriving towns, and aesthetics.
After the collapse of the condominium in Miami, these criteria took a step back, and building safety became a top priority. Steering clear from locations known for high seismic or climatic activity is now an important consideration, along with the usual economic factors.
To that end, oceanfront properties should be regarded with some scrutiny. Potential buyers should make sure that the structures are robust, and that all the services are sound. Safety certification is now available for new tenants, and they should definitely obtain it.
As for the places where earthquakes have a higher probability, according to the USGS, these states might experience such activity in the next 50 years.
● South Carolina
Excessive lateral loading to the tall buildings isn’t caused by earthquakes only. Tornadoes are also among the significant threats to the safety of condominiums. The Midwest and Southern states are historically more prone to these climatic events than the rest of the country.
The states that are relatively safe from natural disasters include:
● New Hampshire
● Rhode Island
● West Virginia
What to Do if You Live in an Apartment During an Earthquake?
Earthquakes are quite common in some states, like California, so most apartment tenants have an idea of what to do during an earthquake. However, their knowledge is often limited to low and moderate seismic activity.
So what should you do if the earthquake is more powerful, or you haven’t experienced similar events before?
In addition, being in an apartment poses a few more challenges related to evacuation, how the higher floors experience the tremors, and whether or not the building can absorb the generated shockwave.
To minimize the risks associated with that type of natural disaster, here’s a checklist of what an apartment owner or tenant should do during an earthquake.
- Look for a dining table, desk, or sturdy counter and crouch under it.
- Stay away from windows or balconies, as their glass could shatter.
- Don’t take shelter beside any fixed or movable shelves.
- Don’t stand below lamps or ceiling fans.
- If you’re lying in bed, stay there.
- If you can’t find a sturdy table, then lie flat on the floor with your hands on your head.
- Don’t rush out of the apartment.
- Don’t use the elevator or the stairs.
- Try to send a message of your location to a friend.
- Turn off the gas line.
These precautions might seem to be of little importance, but in fact, they could be lifesavers. It’s essential to know them well and apply if the need arises.
How Long Does a Condo Last?
When designers go to their drawing boards and sketch highrise buildings, they often believe that these tall buildings will last forever.
That’s because the cost, effort, and time needed for demolishing a megastructure and replacing it with another one are substantial. Thus, mistakes can’t be tolerated, and every party involved in erecting such buildings knows that well.
Despite that degree of diligence, over the years, some buildings collapsed.
That was mostly caused by:
● Natural disasters
● Unintentional mistakes in structural designs
● Negligence in using good-quality materials
● Illegal modifications in the foundation levels of the building
● Failure to perform necessary repairs
After every one of the tragic events that took place, specialists, professionals, and local authorities got together to make sure that there were no repeats.
Thus, more strict standards were often added to the building codes, and building inspection checklists became far more stringent.
The new requirements apply to old buildings as well as new ones. It’s quite common to see contractors retrofitting existing condos to make them more resilient and compliant with the updated codes.
These measures decreased the rate and probability of building failure. In theory, condos are supposed to last for hundreds of years.
Condos are generally safe. There are some considerations that designers, building managers, inspection bodies, and other authorities are now well aware of.
The apartment owners are also required to have some readiness training in case of natural disasters like earthquakes or tornadoes. This would definitely increase personal safety.
The most recent codes and standards related to condos are quite stringent. And that’s good news for everyone.