Repairs, Maintenance and Renovations
Managing Projects in an Era of High Inflation
From the Volume 14, Winter 2023 issue of the CCI GHC Condo News Magazine
Did you know that the cost of major projects such as, window replacements, nearly doubled during the pandemic? Will this trend continue or will things ‘cool off?’ How are we going to pay for this?? These are common questions from Managers and Board members when they receive their updated Reserve Fund Study and are faced with a shortfall or are trying to make a decision as to when to complete a project. With so much uncertainty, it can feel like you’re just not sure what the right thing to do is for your community. While there are no easy answers, in this article, we hope to provide some insight as to what to expect and best practices to rely on when tackling projects in an era of high inflation.
How do we prioritize projects?
Condominium Boards are tasked with many major decisions including what projects to do and when. Those decisions are made much more difficult when the cost of those projects is seemingly increasing by the day. Thankfully, Boards can rely on a proven best practice approach which we call the Building Restoration process. The process starts with the Reserve Fund Study (RFS), followed by Condition Assessments, to dig deeper into issues identified in the RFS or for components that are reaching the end of their expected useful life.
The Condition Assessment should include options for repairs and professional recommendations as to when the projects should occur. If the Board agrees, the Building Restoration Process continues with Engineered Design, Tendering to qualified contractors and finally Construction. Following this process helps the Corporation prioritize and successfully execute projects that required to maintain their communities.
Should we defer our project?
This is becoming an increasingly common question, especially for Corporations feeling the pressure of inflation. Deferring repairs is always an option worth exploring but it is important to understand that kicking the can down the road does not make the project go away and may in fact end up costing the Corporation significantly more.
Condominiums are required to take a long-term view, therefore, lifecycle costing must be completed for all your building components. These costs include the initial replacement cost, costs of repairs, and annually recurring costs.
Keep in mind, not all decisions are made based on the lowest possible costs. Your Condominium is your home, and homeowners care about other intangibles, such as property value, curb appeal, and comfort. Eventually you’re going to want to change that 1970’s wall paper in the corridors. Maybe sooner is better than later.
As an example, many Condominium Boards are facing the challenge as to when the optimal time is to replace their windows. The answer depends on many different factors including current condition of the existing windows, opportunities for refurbishment, and financial constraints. Unfortunately, like many other components, window replacement prices have increased significantly over the past 2-3 years. The main driving force behind these increases is inflation. Many Boards are considering deferring projects in the hope that prices will ‘come back down’.
Just like with the stock market, trying to time the market can lead to huge errors and resulting financial costs for your Owners. Historically, projects do not usually cost less in the future. Stick to the process, prioritize projects, and knock off one at a time. It requires courage to push through with a project during periods of uncertainty and it may be more difficult to get Owner buy-in at these times. Due diligence, communication and transparency are critical to support the process. More comments on that later.
How is Inflation affecting projects?
Boards considering deferring work need to take a realistic look at the cost of deferral, and the financial challenges that deferral may present. If your Corporation defers a $1MM project for 3 years due to a lack of funds, this could require the Corporation to raise condo fees by $333,333 in each of the three coming years. This is often unrealistic.
In addition, the Corporation also needs to realistically consider the cost of inflation, which is easy to underestimate. In the current environment it is easy to envision 10% construction inflation for the next few years. At 10% inflation a $1MM project would cost $1.331MM in 3 years. In this simple example deferring the project increased the cost by $331,0000. If a Board defers a project and underestimates the rate of inflation, the Corporation will only find itself in a similar situation in the future where the project cost is greater than the available funds.
Boards should evaluate deferral with realistic assumptions for ongoing repairs or emergency repairs and future inflation. It may be worthwhile to compare those costs to doing the work now and taking a loan. In the current environment of high inflation, it may be less costly to do the work now with a loan, and pay interest rather than defer the work only to pay more to the contractor in the future.
While interest rates have increased substantially this year, care should be given to the maturity of the funds to have access to the funds when needed. The Board should attempt to match maturities of the investments to the expenditures expected by the Corporation and continue to ladder investments to reduce interest rate risk and provide access to money when needed. There are many “what if scenarios” that can arise, and the Board should have a plan B strategy if funds are required sooner.
How will this affect my Condo Fees?
High inflation means that Boards will be facing both short-term and long-term pressure to adequately fund present and
Construction prices have increased significantly. Over a 2-year period, measured from just before the start of the COVID pandemic, the Statistics Canada Residential Construction Price Index suggest construction prices in Toronto have increased 55% on average.
Condominium Corporations currently tendering major projects are realizing the cost of the work is greater than expected, and any Corporation updating their RFS is being hit with the need to save more, sometimes dramatically more. If you are embarking on a major project and also updating the RFS, you will likely feel the pressure of both short-term and longterm funding needs. Boards should be prepared for larger contribution increases to the RFS and should expect this trend to continue for the next few years.
A strategic investment plan directly related to the finances of the Corporation will help the Corporation minimize risk and maximize the return for the reserve fund. The Board should make use of the RFS and Notice of Future Funding to determine the timeline of contributions and confirm when expenditures are planned. The Board should build an investment
plan based on the current budget and the longer-term notice of future funding projections, reviewing that interest rates,
inflation rates, and cash flows are current and in line with expectations. If the Reserve Fund Study overestimates the potential return or underestimates the effect of inflation, the Corporation could see unanticipated increases in the future.
How do we manage a shortfall?
A financial crisis in a Condominium evokes very raw emotional reactions from Owners which can create turmoil, distrust, and a breakdown of relationships in the community. As Condominium buildings continue to age the need for repairs increases and unexpected expenditures inevitably arise. Is your community prepared?
A crisis starts with a triggering event – an event which knocks the Corporation off of their existing plan. These events include repairs that were not planned for, sooner than planned repairs, or the repairs cost more than expected. In todays, post covid world, almost every Condominium has been knocked off course.
The Board is responsible for making decisions for an entire community of Owners. By following the Building Restoration process, the Board are provided with clear direction and balanced approach. Embarking on this path puts the Board and Owners in the driver’s seat and the confidence that they are taking the best course of action and making sure no stone is left unturned. The process requires information to be shared with the community to ensure that all stakeholders voices are heard in the decision-making process.
Communication, project planning and financial planning combined with consistent clear communication helps navigate
through what can be a highly stressful time for the community. Exploring repair options and timing and assessing the financial implications of each allows for the problem to be tackled head on and communicating consistently with the Owners helps get the buy-in required to successfully implement projects.
A Corporation faced with a funding need has limited options. If time allows, a Corporation can raise fees. If the need is more immediate, the choices are limited to a special assessment or a loan. There are also hybrid options available that allow some unit Owners to pay a special assessment, and other unit Owners to make loan payments to the Corporation. Each situation is unique, and Boards are encouraged to speak with a lender that specializes in financing for a Condominium Corporation to evaluate all available options. As a Board member, before you approach the unit Owners with a large increase, a special assessment or a loan, you will be well served to have done your due diligence on all the available options. In the current environment Owners are demanding options and choices.
What can we do to avoid a financial crisis?
Planning is better than reacting. Many Condominiums are aging and entering what is known as the Building Renewal phase. Mitigating the risk of shortfalls takes careful planning and execution. Retain competent professionals and follow their advice.
Following the Building Restoration process starts with the RFS which is the Corporations most powerful planning tool. We strongly encourage Boards to get involved in your RFS plan and ask questions. When receiving a draft, review the largest projects to assess at a high level if the plan makes sense. As discussed above, expect that contributions will need to be increased in the short term to account for recent inflation and recognize that trend may continue for some time. Avoid the urge to push budgets down and defer projects beyond realistic timelines. It only leads to more trouble down the road.
The Board can also make use of multiple documents to corroborate the financial health of the Corporation. This will assist in structuring the best possible investment plan to maximize the return and minimize the risk. These documents include the following:
- Audited financials should match the maturity and yearend balance of the RFS.
- Budgets should be reviewed against the RFS and deviations noted.
- Current financials should be updated in the investment plan and compared against the RFS.
Having a clear picture of the health of the financials for the Corporation will assist in determining the best course of action. Using the tools available, Corporations are well equipped to weather uncertain times with confidence.
There is a lot to digest here and its always useful to summarize the key takeaways:
- Stick to the Building Restoration process. Complete your Condition Assessments!
- Deferral, while usually feasible, is often not the answer for a variety of reasons, in many cases, it ends up costing much more.
- Inflation has had a large impact on all Corporations financial plan. Expect large contribution increases to account for this that may persist for some time.
- If you are experiencing a shortfall, stick to the process. Complete your due diligence and communicate with your community frequently.
- Make a plan. Hire competent professionals, get involved, and follow the plan.
Jordan Vandervelde, M.A.Sc., P.Eng., is Project Principal, Shareholder with Edison Engineers Inc.
Will MacKay, CFP, CIM is Investment Advisor, Portfolio Manager for The MacKay Financial Group, CIBC Wood Gundy
Ryan Griffiths is a Director at CWB Maxium Financial and works exclusively with Condominium Corporations, Property Managers, and other stakeholders across Canada to develop and implement customized financing solutions. Ryan is Chair of the Professional & Business Partners Committee.
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