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Thursday, August 25, 2005 | Editor’s note: A Voice investigation uncovered complaints of construction defects and misrepresentations by developers in many downtown high-rise condos and apartments. This four-day series sheds light on the practices of developers and city inspectors, examines the risks buyers are taking and offers them advice.

Voice Special Report

This is part four in a four-part series. Read part one, part two and part three.

Catherine Herbst, associate chair of architecture at San Diego’s Woodbury University, has a friend who insists on staying in a home for 24 hours before she will agree to purchase it. The sellers must go elsewhere for a day and a night while she lives in their home like it was her own.

“She’s just crazy,” Herbst said of her friend. “She just pushes it.”

Pushing it may be just what’s required in the downtown San Diego condo market these days, according to housing industry experts.

The Voice of San Diego asked Realtors, architects, professors, developers, attorneys, city inspectors and construction industry representatives to offer up nuggets of wisdom for prospective downtown San Diego condo buyers. They urge buyers to exercise caution above all else when choosing a condo, whether as an investment or as a full-time home.

The experts say buyers should thoroughly investigate all elements of the home-buying process, everything from a background check of the developer to a proper inspection of the unit. Don’t trust anyone, they said, don’t believe what you read, and don’t take anything for granted.

When buying a condo, the first thing a buyer must do is check out who the developer is, said Jim Roberts, a downtown mediator who has dealt with dozens of construction defect disputes.

Part four: Let the experts guide you through the process

“Usually, the best indication of what you’re going to get,” said Roberts, “is what (the developer) has provided someone else.”

Paul Joelson, a forensic architect with Joelson Vail Associates and an expert on construction defect issues, agreed with Roberts. He said that although builders are better than they used to be in terms of getting the job done right, scrutiny of a developer is vital.

“Just like when you’re buying a Ford or a Chevy,” said Joelson, “there’s various models, and sources to find out about what’s a lemon and what’s not.”

One such source of information, Joelson said, is a group called Homeowners Against Deficient Dwellings, or HADD.

The organization was founded in Kansas City, Mo. in 1995 as a resource for that city but it set up a Web site in 1998 and the complaints have poured in. The group now operates agencies in 26 states, including California.

On the HADD Web site,

“Our main mission and goal is to educate people before they buy,” said HADD’s president and founder Nancy Seats, “so that they can protect themselves better from being had. And to help as much as we can those who’ve been had.”

Kismit Cyriacks-Vella, a downtown Realtor with Platinum Properties, said knowing who the developer of a project is, and the extent of their experience, is equally important to the price of the condo itself.

“If you have a developer who has had a reputation, a track record, a credit report,” she said, “of being able to manage a project from the money, to turning it over to the contractor, to closing the deal on people and having a satisfied home buyer … that helps a lot.”

Not surprisingly, San Diego’s Realtors also say that having a decent broker to guide one through the home-buying process is equally, if not more important, than buying from the right seller.

“Because of the success of the downtown condo market, a lot of Realtors came into the market from another area, and they’re bringing their clients in from out of town,” said Anthony Napoli, a Realtor who specializes in buying and selling condos in Little Italy. “They don’t know the area, they don’t know which are the good buildings, which ones you should get into.”

Napoli offered some basic advice for checking up on Realtors.

“There are Realtors who do a lot of advertising in a specific area. I would ask people that have bought in that area and I would get a referral.”

Roberts agreed. He said using a broker that has contacts at homeowners’ associations and has knowledge of who the reliable developers are is a great asset.

Roberts urged home buyers to inquire from brokers whether they know members of the boards of directors at developments. If they do, he said, that’s a good sign that they have insight into whether a unit has had any defect issues or how good a developer is at solving residents’ problems.

Once a prospective buyer has researched developers and taken on a reputable broker, experts said the next step is to thoroughly inspect a unit.

Joe Harris, the city’s building inspection supervisor, laughed when he was asked what buyers should look for when they walk through a condo for the first time.

“Man! Watch for everything,” he said.

Harris was talking about practicalities, such as the layout of the building and its amenities.

“They need to not be amazed by the aesthetics,” said Harris. “Aesthetics take away from everything. They should be looking at the functionality of the unit.”

By functionality, Harris means things like how the doors open, the layout of the kitchen, the size and location of closets and whether laundry areas are properly ventilated. He suggested that prospective buyers approach the buying process with a checklist of things to look out for, and said doing so would avoid a lot of problems later on.

Joelson, the forensic architect, went further than Harris in stressing the importance of really going to town on a unit before putting down a deposit. He suggested checking for any trace of water intrusion or mold. Look under the sinks, he said, around the doors and windows and in the corners of rooms. If there’s any discoloration, inquire with the Realtor or the developer as to its source.

Joelson cautioned prospective buyers over the use of building inspectors. Though Realtors argue that paying for an inspection by a professional is always worthwhile, Joelson said there are good inspectors and bad inspectors.

“Some of those home inspections guys, they don’t look at sinks and plugs and little things like that,” Joelson said. “Ultimately, (the buyers) need to get a really good property inspector that really has a wider view than just looking at the obvious things.”

Another point raised by experts is that home buyers need to be aware of the lifestyle shift involved in purchasing a condo in an urban area.

Herbst, the architect, stressed that home buyers should be aware that when they buy into downtown condo projects, they are buying into a lifestyle that may be very different from what they are used to. Dirt, noise, smells and a lack of space are all characteristic of urban living, Herbst said, and people need to know that that’s what they are buying into.

Joe Werner, CEO of Intergulf Development Group, a major developer in San Diego, put it another way.

“It’s very good to educate yourself prior,” said Werner, “to make sure you understand how a homeowners’ association works – that you can’t suddenly put a bicycle on your balcony, you have to ask for permission, this sort of thing.”

Please contact Will Carless directly at

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