Working versus nonworking fireplaces loomed large in several buildings this past year. While most of the issues revolved around wood-burning fireplaces, gas ones are also affected.
Everyone knows that having a working fireplace immediately increases an apartment’s market value. It is nearly as highly coveted as having outdoor space or your own washer/dryer. For those purchasing an apartment, it’s a buyer-beware situation, although most buyers are all too willing to take the word of the seller that a fireplace is in good working order. They may not have a clear idea as to what regular maintenance is required and who is responsible for its maintenance. And no one seems to remember that having a working fireplace is not guaranteed.
My advice to boards has long been that the obligations to maintain fireplaces in working order are the obligations of the unit-owner since the fireplace is not part of the building’s heating system and services only that unit. As a result, there are usually no regular inspections or standards imposed by the co-op or condo to assure the integrity of any working fireplace. This is a serious failure on the part of the co-ops and condos, even if the building has only a few apartments with working fireplaces.
Fireplaces whose flues or fireboxes are cracked or otherwise damaged, gas-starters that malfunction, chimneys not cleaned regularly, and non-functioning chimney fans are some of the most common problems, all posing serious risks. How? Gas and smoke accumulate in the flue when fans don’t work, smoke infiltrates neighboring apartments from cracks in the flue or also sparks from embers rising up through the chimney can ignite accumulated creosote causing a chimney fire that can ultimately pose a fire hazard to the entire building.
Just as you regulate what can be installed on a terrace, you have to regulate how working fireplaces are maintained, and even take on the burden of regular inspection and chimney cleaning, charging the cost back to the unit-owners who have the working fireplaces. Doing so not only ensures these inspections and cleanings occur, but also that they be performed by a reputable reliable company. Plus, there is always a cost savings in having everything done at one time.
These are the steps all boards should take if you have any working fireplaces:
1. Set up annual inspections of all fireplaces, including inspections of all flues. Give each unit-owner a copy of his or her fireplace report with notice to make any necessary repairs within a fixed time. Failure to do so means the fireplace will be closed and cannot be used.
Charge the unit-owner as additional rent for the cost to inspect his fireplace and closing it off because he did not repair it.
2. Have chimneys cleaned at least once a year. Pass the cost back to unit-owners as additional rent.
3. Include in the sale/lease approval package a certification by purchaser/tenant that he or she acknowledges and understands that the co-op makes no representations with respect to the fireplaces, that the buyer has made and is satisfied with his or her own inspection, and that he or she understands that the unit-owner has the sole obligation to maintain the fireplace and its flue.
4. If the last inspection report shows work needs to be done, any unit-owner who sells or leases his unit prior to the next annual inspection must include with the approval application to the board receipts and other documentation confirming that necessary work was completed.
5. The house rules should be amended to reflect the fireplace regulations.