When leaks land some condo owners in hot water

The cause of a leak is often very hard to detect. PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: PIXABAY

Many condominiums feature the word “water” in their names as it signifies wealth or purity but that same element can spark furious disputes among neighbours when leaks start coming through walls and roofs.

Such cases often result in tens of thousands of dollars in compensation and they should serve as stark warnings that the slow steady drip of a water leak could see you handing over a bucket of money to your aggrieved neighbour once the lawyers get called in.

But finding an amicable solution is not so easy because the cause of a leak is often very hard to detect, especially so when the water seepage happens between the structures of two units or from pipes sealed inside walls.

These problems are peculiar to apartment dwellers because the roof is also the floor of the unit above, which is often exposed to water in bathrooms, balconies and kitchens.

While a leak may take weeks or months to manifest, the end result is often a nightmare: An owner might have an unsightly mouldy patch on the unit’s roof or wall, while neighbourly good cheer will likely fly out the window soon after.

Such cases invariably land at the door of the Strata Titles Board when some condominium owners maintain that the leaks do not originate from their homes.

Getting to the root of the problem requires construction experts, who often conduct field tests resembling those done by crime scene investigators, such as using high-tech scanners that can penetrate walls to detect the presence of water and dyed solutions to highlight the trail of the leakage.

The law favours aggrieved owners more than their neighbours if they can produce photographs or reports to show that the affected ceiling or adjacent wall has signs of damp or water leakage.

When such cases happen, the Building Maintenance and Strata Management Act comes into play as it presumes that such damage is probably caused by a defect in the unit above. This means its owner must resolve the matter unless he can produce proof that the leak did not originate in his unit.

Of course, a bare denial won’t work and owners usually have to conduct their own tests to find the cause of the leaks.

There are good reasons why the law holds the top-floor owners accountable – most of them tend to be uncooperative when their neighbours complain. With the presumption of liability, they will have to look into the complaints of lower-unit owners, who have to bear the inconvenience and distress as long as the leak remains unresolved.

The law also makes it easier to speed up the resolution of such disputes because if the upper-floor owners do nothing, the affected neighbours can seek legal orders to compel them to repair the leaks and pay compensation.

These two cases illustrate how such cases can be resolved.

Proof of leak not challenged

The Strata Titles Board dealt with a case in May involving the owners of two studio apartments in Bukit Timah. The one living below had been putting up with water seepage since September 2022, resulting in damp and moisture in the ceiling and on the walls of her kitchen and bedroom.

She engaged a water intrusion engineer, who used a combination of radio waves, ultraviolet waves and visual observations to confirm the presence of water stains on the kitchen concrete ceiling and its adjoining wall. The test found damp and cement discolouration on the bathroom ceiling as well.

The engineer also tested the upper-floor unit by continuously spraying water for 20 minutes at a corner wall by the long bathtub. Around an hour later, water was seen “oozing out” from the affected kitchen wall in the unit below.

The upstairs owner engaged his own expert, who disputed the findings that there was a leak from his unit, but no tests were done to support his case.

The board noted that the experts could have jointly agreed to conduct a test using fluorescent dye, which could have helped to resolve the dispute. Instead, the upstairs owner relied on his expert, who “merely stated that he saw no need for further testing and equipment, relying only on his own senses”.

As the law already presumes that the source of leaks is often from the upper floor, unless proven otherwise, the board found the owner of this unit liable for the defect because he failed to justify that the leak did not come from his home.

In addition to the repairs, which must be passed by a building surveyor, the owner also had to pay his neighbour about $18,000 for expert and legal fees incurred in the case.

Test showed no leak

In another case, an owner, who rented out her lower-floor unit in Mount Faber, asked for more than $17,000 in compensation after her tenants complained of leaks.

The living room and balcony of the upper unit were directly above the master bedroom of the downstairs unit, while its kitchen was right above the second bedroom of the unit below.

Water seepage was evident in the ceiling of the master bedroom of the lower unit.

The complaint led to waterproofing work being carried out on the balcony of the upper unit in January 2021. Subsequent tests showed that there were no more water seepage issues until January 2022.

A water ponding test using a fluorescent dye solution was done at the same balcony six months later, and experts from both sides confirmed that it did not show water seepage from the balcony to the unit below. Indeed, neither expert found any fluorescent dye stains within the unit.

In light of the test, the Strata Titles Board noted that the owner of the lower unit could not produce any evidence of damp, moisture or water penetration in the master bedroom, second bedroom and living room coming from the unit above.

It also found it “persuasive” that both sides’ experts agreed that there was no fluorescent-dyed water inside the lower unit at all after the test.

The complaint was dismissed and the lower unit’s owner was ordered to reimburse her neighbour’s expenses to the tune of $7,500.

If there is a lesson to be learnt from such cases, it is that it is costly and time-consuming to turn neighbourly disputes into legal battles.

For a start, it is better for neighbours to work together and perhaps share the expenses of a joint test to find the source of the leak. Once the cause is revealed, the relevant owner should just proceed to carry out repairs.

After all, if the leak comes from above, the owner cannot escape his responsibility. If he waits for the lawsuit to be filed, he risks losing even more money as he has to pay both sides’ legal and expert fees.

More importantly, the adage penny wise and pound foolish comes into play when dealing with such problems. If word leaks out that your unit has water seepage problems, potential buyers will likely be turned off.

So it makes sense to be cordial in resolving maintenance issues with your neighbours instead of escalating them into expensive and no-win affairs.

“Source:[When leaks land some condo owners in hot water] © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Permission required for reproduction”

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