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Exhaust all options for resolving heat problem with condo board before going the lawsuit route

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Q: About 20 years ago, I purchased a condominium unit in an older high-rise building in Chicago. From the start, it was freezing cold in the unit each winter. I was told by the building year after year that there was nothing the building could do except put up gel caulk or plastic sheeting on the windows to keep the cold out.

After years of complaining, the building flushed the pipes and turned the radiant heat pipes open completely. The building’s radiant heat is controlled by the thermostat of the unit below. There is no controlling the heat in my unit, and there is insufficient heat.

I moved out of the unit some time ago and rent out the unit. Each tenant complains about how cold the unit is. I have lost a great deal of money because tenants leave year after year because of the cold. My last tenants told me there was a city of Chicago ordinance that imposes a penalty on landlords if the rental unit is unable to reach a minimum of 68 degrees. My unit frequently does not reach that temperature.

This year, the condo association finally hired a heating contractor to evaluate the situation. They also suggested that I put up draperies to keep the cold out. When it comes to installing those draperies, the rules make it impossible due to our inability to screw into the ceilings. The condo is afraid that screws might puncture the radiant ceiling heat.

What do you think I should do? Should I hire a lawyer? Should I just sell?

A: Before you hang out a “for sale” sign, you should explore alternatives. Have you thought about installing baseboard electric heat to supplement the building heat? You can probably hire an electrician, and for not too much money, to install some electric heaters around the apartment to help you out. You can also simply put a couple of standing electric heaters in the unit, which will help out on the coldest days.

Of course, you certainly can sell the unit, but you probably will want (or need) to disclose the problem to buyers to avoid having them come back to you after the closing with a complaint on this issue.

You’ve tried to get the association to address this issue, but they have thus far been unable or unwilling to resolve the problem. The building should take some responsibility for the situation. The condo association might even be willing to pay for some or all of the expenses of the installation of the electrical heaters, given how long you have suffered with this situation. They might even be willing to pick up the cost of electricity for your unit if heat is included in the assessments.

Consider talking to them about these other options first, and see if you can solve this situation without having to go to an attorney. The association has a duty to provide common services to all unit owners equally. They have not done this in your case.

What we have suggested could be less expensive than permanently repairing the inadequate building heat situation you now have. Baseboard heaters are not that expensive, but they are permanently installed, so you’ll need an electrician to do that work for you. A simple search online showed that some baseboard heaters have thermostats and even remote controls.

If that suggestion doesn’t work for you or your association, you can see what their suggested remedy is, but it should be more than they have done for you in the past. If they won’t do anything, you might be left having to hire an attorney to figure out what your options might be going forward.

Ilyce Glink‘s latest book “100 Questions Every First-Time Home Buyer Should Ask, 4th edition,” will be published in mid-February. She is also the CEO of “Best Money Moves,” an app that employers provide to employees to measure and dial down financial stress. Samuel J. Tamkin is a Chicago-based real estate attorney. Contact them through her website, ThinkGlink.com.

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