Multi-Family and Commercial Property Buyers: What Is the Expected Useful Life of the Systems?

Buyers often ask the real estate building inspector: “How long will the roof, electrical system, plumbing, etc. last?” The answer to these questions is not just based on the inspector’s experience.

There are agreed upon life expectancy tables. After reviewing many of them, the one table that seems to be the most relevant for commercial properties is the Form 4327 Physical Needs Assessment. It can be found on the Fanny Mae web site. It covers many items such as roofing, heating and AC units, as well as mail boxes, signs, clothes dryers, etc. This is one key standard we use when assessing the condition of a commercial or multi-family property.

Where the tricky part comes in is determining how much longer a system will last. For the most part that has to do with how well the building and its systems have been maintained. For example, we recently inspected an apartment building that was 50 years old and if it continues to be maintained at the level it has been it will last at least another 50 years. We also inspected a building that was only 20 years old and in need of such extensive repairs and maintenance that it was questionable whether or not it should be torn down.

A good real estate inspection should go over the five basic systems and the site – namely the plumbing, electrical, heating and cooling, roofing and structure. Some inspectors will be able to give you an estimate of the remaining expected useful life left in each. This is partially done from experience and partially from the above mentioned table. The experience shows us what shape it is in now and how well it has been maintained as well as the original quality of the materials used and the quality of the installation. All are factors that you don’t get from a table.

An example of assessing primarily from experience was many years ago when the customer asked me how much longer the roof would last. I told him that if it had some repairs and maintenance done now it would last another 5-10 years before it needed replacement. He was greatly relieved. In this instance, I was assessing this primarily from my experience of nearly 40 years in the trades.

The problem with relying only on experience is the wide variation in experience from person to person. When I first wanted to know how long the systems typically last, I asked an HVAC (that’s heating, venting and air-conditioning) specialist how long a typical roof mounted unit lasts. He told me 20 years or so. When I asked another one he told me 12 – 15 years. When I asked another he told me 15 – 20 years but that what really was important was how well it was maintained. He had seen some over 30 years old and doing fine. At that point I realized I needed to get some industry recognized expected useful life tables and discovered the 4327 Physical Needs Assessment.

This question continues to require ongoing research every day. I keep asking professionals when I see them. New products come out all the time. Some of the new ones don’t last nearly as long as the older ones – like the wall gas heaters you see in apartments. The new ones last maybe 10 – 15 years if they are used often. The old ones lasted 20 – 30 years or more because they were made with thicker materials.

Nothing beats a good thorough general visual building inspection by a seasoned professional to get the basic understanding of what you have and how much longer it should last if properly maintained.