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Articles

What to Look for in a Commercial Building
Nan Harvey, A.I.A.
published March, 2000, Howard County Business Monthly

The economy is great, your business is booming, rates are good and you're ready to finally buy a building and move your business in! Before you do though you should consider not just what the building looks like today but what kind of shape it's going to be in a couple of years from now and the kinds of maintenance work that's going to be required to keep it looking good.

Some buildings, like people, age better than others. A building may look great immediately after the construction is complete but start looking shabby right after the warranty period is up. Another building may look great but dated and still another may provide years of service with little required maintenance.

What makes the difference Of course, more durable materials often come with a higher initial price tag but not always. After looking at hundreds of different commercial buildings with varying levels of care, we have found that there are some materials that just do not age well and probably should be avoided if possible no matter what the initial cost. By no means an exhaustive list, the following things should be considered when you're looking to purchase a commercial building:

  • Treated timber retaining walls, stair treads, and deck supports don't last, especially if they are in direct contact with the earth. Better choices include brick, block masonry, stone or precast concrete.
  • Exterior insulation and finish system (EIFS; a brand name for the material is "Dryvit") can be easily damaged adjacent to parking or loading areas and should be protected with bollards or a more durable building material. Even aluminum or vinyl siding can be easily damaged and should be placed with care in these areas.
  • Aluminum downspouts should also be protected when vehicles can damage them. Downspouts should always have a hard surface to wash onto directing rainfall away from the building and preferably away from pedestrian walkways that can freeze during cold spells.
  • Gypsum board soffits at exterior overhangs, porches or open covered areas are subject to deterioration and moisture damage. Prefinished metal or exterior grade plywood soffit materials are more durable choices.
  • Mechanical equipment should be placed to allow clear access and ventilation around it but be protected from parking or loading vehicles. If equipment is placed on the rooftop (generally a good solution), access by repair personnel should be via a secured hatch and roof protection should be provided along the most direct route of travel.
  • Incandescent light fixtures with glass globes should be protected if they are placed close to pedestrian walkways in areas where there is a possibility of vandalism. Better choices include metal halide or high pressure sodium light fixtures that are directed to cover the desired areas and not flood adjacent residential areas, if any.

If you've found a building and fallen in love or the location just can't be beat but it has some of the undesirable materials listed, don't despair. Work with your broker or agent and the building owner. Find an architect or contractor who can work up replacement or repair costs and try to negotiate corrections before you purchase the property. Always try to find out what the maintenance costs have typically been during the life of the building and what materials and equipment have been replaced. Work up a worst-case-scenario budget for at least the first five years (your bank may want maintenance costs figured for the term of the loan) and make sure you can cover these things. After all this, buy it, move in and enjoy your new independence!

Nan Harvey attended Agnes Scott College in Decatur, GA (BA in Art), and graduate school at Va. Tech. in architecture. She moved to Washington, DC then Baltimore, where she renovated a rowhouse and then an old farmhouse while working for various architectural firms in Baltimore.

Nan started Building Consultants, Inc. construction monitoring and condition survey services in April 1990, and added environmental services in 2000. As a dedicated volunteer for Habitat for Humanity International, Nan has built houses for deserving families in Nepal and Brazil.

She can be reached at BCI at (410) 715-2277 or nan@eConstructionServices.com. BCI provides expert project review for real estate transactions.

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