British Columbia

Underinsurance leads to whopping bill after fire at condo building

A first-time homeowner and others in Chilliwack are grappling with extraordinary costs as a result of a fire in their condo building after discovering it was underinsured. An expert on condo policy says it’s an expensive cautionary tale for others.

Condo expert says finding out who is responsible could ‘get messy’

Derek Wubs, 26, is a first-time homeowner in Chilliwack. (Christian Amundson/CBC)

After a fire 16 months ago, Derek Wubs still has no home and no answers.

What he does have is a $37,000 bill he's struggling to pay for his burned-out Chilliwack condo, and a warning for others.

"I was under the belief that paying my strata fees would result in the appropriate building insurance being purchased," Wubs, 26, said.

"People who are looking to buy in a strata, I would suggest to them be very careful because there's no such thing as a good strata story."

Derek Wubs looks through the temporary fencing to his condo. He has not been able to live there for 16 months. (Christian Amundson/CBC)

Wubs, 26, owns a condo at Parkridge at Sardis Village, a 60-unit building that went up in flames in August 2019. A fire investigation pointed to smoking materials in a neighbouring unit as the cause.

After being forced from their homes by the blaze, Wubs said, they found out the building was underinsured by $3.2 million.

Wubs and other owners are being forced to pay a special levy to make up the shortfall. Each unit must pay at least $36,000 but some are facing bills over $57,000. Wubs owes over $37,000 for his share.

Having looked at documents supplied by Wubs, an expert on condo policy said this should serve as a warning to other condo homeowners in the province.

Fire crews respond to the blaze in August 2019. (Cory Correia/CBC)

"Being undervalued limits the amount of claims," said Tony Gioventu, executive director of the Condo Homeowners Association of B.C.

"This matters because the results are a significant cost and significant loss."

Gioventu said the case shows how devastating it can be for homeowners when their building is underinsured and disaster strikes.

'It gets messy'

Gioventu explained that under B.C.'s Strata Property Act, a strata building must be insured for the full replacement value of all common property: things like the building's structure, furniture in the lobby and decorative elements like shared artwork. 

Essentially, everything but the movable possessions of the homeowners.

Gioventu said fault for the underinsurance could lie with the strata council, the property management company, the insurance appraiser or a combination of all three.

"It gets messy once something like this happens," Gioventu said.

A look inside Wubs's condo about a month after the fire. (Derek Wubs)

"But it ends up going back to the same problem: the owners end up paying the price for this, which is extremely unfair."

CBC reached out to Parkridge's strata council president for comment but he did not respond.

CBC also reached out to Homelife Glenayre Property Management, the property management company holding the contract for Parkridge.

Wubs said he tried multiple times to speak to Homelife about the situation but they repeatedly denied any responsibility for the situation.

He said he's been looking for legal advice on how to proceed but lawyers have asked for expenses upfront, stymieing progress on that front.

The fire started in a unit near Wubs's, according to a fire department investigation. (Derek Wubs)

Rare problem but a costly one

Gioventu said underinsurance is a rare problem but a costly one.

Condo buildings need regular appraisals, he said, to make sure the true replacement costs are covered.

Wubs says it's been frustrating to have no one take responsibility for the situation he and other homeowners are in. (Christian Amundson/CBC)

"We've also seen strata councils ... who have decided not to apply for appraisals in the past year because they didn't want their property values to increase over concerns of increased insurance costs," Gioventu said.

Homeowners can take steps to protect themselves, he said. 

They can get involved with their strata council or attend meetings to help make sure regular appraisals are undertaken.

They can also take a copy of their strata's insurance policy to an insurance broker for advice on how to keep themselves covered through additional homeowner insurance.

Wubs believed with few valuable possessions in his home he could get by with just the strata's insurance.

"It's devastating," Wubs said. "You put in this work, you finally find yourself a home and now you're out of it."

Wubs believes he might be able to move back to his condo in the summer of 2021.

CBC Vancouver's Impact Team investigates and reports on stories that impact people in their local community and strives to hold individuals, institutions and organizations to account. If you have a story for us, email impact@cbc.ca.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Liam Britten

Digital journalist

Liam Britten is an award-winning journalist for CBC Vancouver. You can contact him at liam.britten@cbc.ca or follow him on Twitter: @liam_britten. Liam contributes to CBC Vancouver's Impact Team, where he investigates and reports on stories that impact people in their local community.

With files from Michelle Ghoussoub

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