The need for repairs at two condo complexes in a popular Plymouth development is once again bringing special assessments — and the battles royal that can accompany them— to the forefront of debate in Greater Boston real estate.
Those familiar with the Harbor Towers special assessment saga of the early aughts may be getting a sense of déjà vu. Fixing the heating and cooling system there led to special assessments ranging from $70,000 to more than $400,000 per unit. Lawsuits were filed, arguments among residents played out in the press, and some owners moved away before the assessments were levied.
Even though it may be too late for the Plymouth owners to get the outcome they desire, legislators are taking note of the issues condo owners in the state are facing.
Frustrated residents speak out
The Pinehills, a multiphased mixed-use community by New England Development spread across 3,000 acres in Plymouth, features condos, single-family homes, shopping, and the luxurious Mirbeau Inn & Spa. But it is also home to growing discontent among a group of condo owners who claim that shoddy design and building techniques led to water damage in a number of residences in select phases of the development. Those owners are facing a pricey special assessment to fix the damage, and the price may go up if more defective building enclosures are discovered during ongoing inspections.
People have moved out, two lawsuits have been filed by homeowners who claim that the real estate agents didn’t properly inform them of the damage, and several residents just want to keep something like this from ever happening again.
“Rather than entirely disclose the issue completely, Pine Hills [sic] downplayed it with omissions and half-truths,’’ reads a civil suit filed last fall by former residents against a brokerage service. A separate lawsuit accuses brokers of covering up the problem.
Adding to the frustration of several residents is that the builder that oversaw the construction of those condos — Newton-based The Green Co. — is putting up more homes in The Pinehills.
Knowing that there have been complaints at two communities in the development, “why do they continue to give [The Green Co.] property to develop?’’ said Bob Lyons, a Pinehills resident who lives in one of the buildings with the reported problems. “Nobody involved with management could really answer.’’
The water issues were reported at two communities: Rebecca’s Landing (62 units) and Winslowe’s View (550). Residents began complaining about water leaks several years back and have estimated that 100 units have damage. Various members of The Pinehills community who spoke to the Globe said the condo board hasn’t provided an official count.
Left unchecked, a building enclosure failure — also known as “a building envelope failure’’ — can lead to rotting, mold, and delamination. One of the most infamous cases was the “leaky condo crisis’’ in British Columbia, Canada. Officials there estimate that $3 billion to $5 billion in damage affected tens of thousands of condos. The government ushered in higher building standards after the failures were attributed to designs inappropriate for the climate and the cheaper materials that were used during the housing boom in the late 1980s.
The property management group at those Pinehills neighborhoods said in a statement that it is “helping to facilitate a comprehensive building envelope replacement project currently underway at the Winslowe’s View’’ development, but did not comment on who will be paying for those repairs.
Those estimates might run into the tens of millions of dollars, Lyons said. Mirroring the complaints of the condo owners in the Canada case, one of the lawsuits also alleges that construction defects are to blame.
“I won’t be around to see the end of it, but my grandkids might. … We are faced with some pretty serious issues,’’ Lyons said. “Everywhere we turn, you feel like you pick up a rock and a snake comes up.’’
Initially, the building management company pointed the Globe to the Winslowe’s View condo board. Leadership within the board were not made available for comment across repeated attempts for an interview.
In a statement, The Green Co. said some of the residents in the Winslowe’s View neighborhood moved in in 2002, but both neighborhoods were completed in 2014. It said it “worked with the Winslowe’s View and Rebecca’s Landing associations in 2014-2015 on the transition to homeowner management of the organizations.
“In all cases, the homes in these neighborhoods are beyond the warranty periods from when they were originally built,’’ the company said, asserting that in its 70-year history, it has “responded reasonably’’ to warranty issues when they arise, “including, in many cases, going above and beyond the minimum contract requirements.’’
The company said that it cannot guarantee building products in perpetuity and that materials wear out:
“In the over two decades since we began building homes in the Winslowe’s View and Rebecca’s Landing neighborhoods, construction practices and materials as well as the Massachusetts Building Code have changed, and those changes have been incorporated into the way we build. With advancements in industry knowledge of materials, climate impacts and how products endure, including the need for regular maintenance, the Green Company continues to evolve its construction practices to ensure that the methods employed, and materials used take advantage of these advancements and are best suited to the conditions in which we are building homes today.’’
In response to the Globe’s queries, New England Development said it was “extremely proud of The Pinehills’’ and that “Working with the best national and regional builders, our innovative and award-winning approach to land planning, siting of homes for views and open space preservation has been nationally recognized.’’ The Pinehills is home to more than 5,000 residents and 34 businesses and amenities.
It hailed The Green Co., one of the first builders at the development, for its “approach to building neighborhoods with homes that nestle into their natural setting with views of woods, golf and ocean, reflects the unique approach to land planning and design that has made The Pinehills in Plymouth one of the best places to live in the country.’’
Monthly condo fees an issue
Residents also claim that the development team in charge of their project didn’t charge enough in monthly condo fees, leading to special assessments to cover the damage.
It isn’t uncommon for developers to keep condo fees artificially low while building a development. When it comes time to hand over control of a completed project to a condo board, the developer is no longer responsible, and it is up to the condo association to either raise fees to build up a reserve fund or run the risk of one day having a hefty special assessment for repairs.
“We get cases all the time where a developer will artificially set the condo fee low. Let’s say it should be $500 per unit in order to cover the operating expenses,’’ said Christopher Malloy, a real estate attorney. “The developer will set it at $250 because that’s attractive to buyers who want to buy and have a low condo fee. Then, once that period of developer control is over, and it’s turned over to the unit owners, then you realize, ‘Why don’t we have anything in the reserve?’’’
The question of how much money to keep in a condo board’s reserve fund made national headlines after the tragic collapse of the Champlain Towers South building last year in Florida.
Legislature takes notice of condo disputes
When issues go awry at a condo, it can be difficult to go after the developer behind the project, but several options the State House is weighing could offer better protections for owners.
Bill H.1412, which is sitting in the House Ways and Means Committee, would enact more state oversight of condo boards. The program, which would be part of the Massachusetts attorney general’s office, would investigate and resolve complaints involving condo groups.
“There is a motion among some of the condo owners who feel that they have been treated in an unjust fashion,’’ said Representative Kevin G. Honan, a Democrat who represents Allston and Brighton and the sponsor of the bill. “Something needs to be done. That’s why I filed the bill and am advocating for it, but it sure helps when the impacted people call their local legislators and build more support for the bill.’’
The measure is necessary, as it would provide an impartial moderator to any issues that arise in condo boards, Honan added.
It’s not the only method of recourse some owners may have, however. The statute of limitations in Massachusetts for them to sue a developer for negligence in construction is six years from when the final condo became occupied, Malloy said.
Where that gets tricky is with a multiphased project like The Pinehills. Does the six-year clock start after an individual section is completed or the entire development? In the case of The Pinehills, many areas are still under construction.
Legislators could clarify that language with a new state law, Malloy said. “The home builders and the general contractors, their lobbyists are very persuasive. They’re very much against it because it extends their exposure period,’’ he added.
The issue in those two sections of The Pinehills might be a head-scratcher for those wondering why homeowners or condo owners don’t have more ways to go after a developer.
“Beyond six years, it is hard to probe whether the occupancy or behavior of the occupants isn’t impacting the system. It’s a little harder to find causality,’’ said Carlos Martín, project director of the Remodeling Futures Program at Harvard’s Joint Center for Housing Studies.
But some people in those affected areas of The Pinehills aren’t waiting for legislators to help their cause. Several people moved out before the assessments were levied — and had no problem selling their condos in this seller’s market — despite disclosing the pending assessment.
“We really thought it was dividing the community,’’ said Peg Sylvester, a former Pinehills resident who moved to a different area of the neighborhood — one not built by The Green Co. — with her husband after getting fed up with the assessment drama. “It was very hard to feel like everybody was being satisfied.’’
Protecting buyers’ interests
Avoiding issues like this can also come down to the basics.
Malloy emphasized the importance of doing protective measures like water tests on all condos— especially before the statute of limitations of developer negligence runs out.
“That’s exactly why we recommend a transition and condition study as soon as the board takes over,’’ Malloy said. “Maybe it’s a water test. Maybe they pull off some siding. Maybe they look at a window or something.
“A condition that might not otherwise develop organically for five, six, or seven years — most of them can be spotted by a qualified engineer early on.’’
Send comments to [email protected]. Subscribe to the Globe’s free real estate newsletter — our weekly digest on buying, selling, and design — at pages.email.bostonglobe.com/AddressSignUp. Follow us on Twitter @globehomes.