Ice Dams: Answers to Five Frequently Asked Questions

20 Dec

Ice dams are all too common during Minnesota winters. They may happen for a number of reasons, and there are debates about whether they should happen at all. When they occur, arguments frequently arise about how to take care of the problem. In common interest communities this also leads to disputes about who is responsible to perform the repair work and, more importantly, who should have to pay for it. Sadly, winter again is approaching, and for many, ice dams will follow. This article will review the causes of ice damming, the various parties who may have responsibility to pay for repairing the damage, and who might have the responsibility to correct the problem.

What Are Ice Dams?

Ice dams are characterized by a buildup of ice at the edge of a roof. They occur when snow accumulates on a roof and the surface of the roof is heated sufficiently to melt the snow, while the eaves (the portions of the roof more exposed to the elements) remain below freezing due to cooler outside temperatures. Icicles may form as a result of ice dams, but the presence of icicles does not necessarily signal the presence of ice dams. That said, it’s better to be safe than sorry, and if you’re in doubt you should react as though you have ice dams until you receive a credible confirmation that ice dams are not present.

What Causes Ice Dams and How Do They Cause Damage?

Sunny winter days, which are common in Minnesota, frequently contribute to ice dams. What many people don’t realize is that one or more other factors usually cause the ice dam. Some builders or their representatives will contribute to the confusion about the nature or cause of ice dams by attempting to excuse their presence. They may assure homeowners that ice dams are normal and unpreventable, or that the problem is caused by the homeowner’s or the association’s failure to maintain its roofs properly, or instead that the problem has arisen due to abnormal or extreme weather conditions that could not have been foreseen. In fact, ice dams should not occur and in most cases are preventable, though fault and financial responsibility may present some thorny issues.

The two most common causes for ice dams are found inside the structure. The first cause is “bypass air” from the dwelling that enters the attic, and the other is inadequate ventilation inside the attic space. In some ways the direction a building faces may contribute to the problem, as can certain architectural styles or features, but at least one of the two issues listed above are usually involved when an ice dam forms.

The term “bypass air” refers to warm air from the dwelling that finds its way into the attic and, during the winter, can start to warm the underside of the roof. This warm air may actually leak through light fixtures or other openings between the dwelling and the attic, or it can result from insufficient insulation in the attic, allowing ambient heat from the unit to rise into the attic. It is also possible that air ducts or other ventilation systems may leak or radiate heat into the attic. Service providers exist who can perform a “blower door” test that determines whether there is excessive air escaping from the living area into the attic space of a structure. Some even work through government-subsidized programs to make their services more affordable.

A ventilation issue arises when air flow in the attic itself is inadequate. Roofing systems are designed with vents near the peak and vents in the soffits. The soffit is the horizontal surface, usually made of painted metal, that you see when you look up at the underside of the eave of your roof. These vents exist to permit air to rise up through the soffit, flow along the underside of the roof deck, and escape out the vents near the roof peak. When this air flow occurs uninterrupted, the surface of the roof is more likely to say a relatively uniform temperature from top to bottom, limiting if not eliminating the temperature variations that can cause the upper areas of the roof to be warm while the lower areas of the roof remain cold (the cause of ice dams). If insulation blocks this ventilation because it is filled or packed against the underside of the roof, inconsistent roof temperatures characterized by warm upper roofs and cold lower roofs (the cause of ice dams) can result. Ironically, insulation intended to limit the amount of bypass air in the attic can cause ice dams by blocking needed ventilation.

Of course, water leaks need not occur just because there are ice dams. Proper roofing techniques can help protect against water damage even where ice dams might form. This primarily means proper installation of an “ice/water shield” a sufficient distance up the roof, and also protecting the bottom edge of the roof, where it meets the fascia. Ice/water shield can protect the roof edge, but some contractors will install a metal “drip edge” at this location to protect against voids between the roof deck and fascia where water can enter. Gaps or openings that allow water to enter when it backs up under the shingles should not exist at or near roof edges. Consider also that just because you haven’t seen water inside your home does not mean that water has not entered the structure. Water reaching the inside of a building violates building code and constitutes a major structural defect whether it enters the dwelling space or not.

How Should You Respond if You See Ice Dams?

If you see ice dams on your home or in your community, ensure the association’s board of directors and the property manager, if any, know about the ice dams and any resulting leaks. Provide the notice in writing as quickly as possible. The association and any affected unit owners should then cooperate for the purpose of making an inspection of the roof and attic —and the unit, if necessary— to investigate the cause of the ice dams and any damage arising from them.

If your community is less than 10 years old when you first notice the ice dams (or if the ice dams occur within 10 years of a renovation to the building) you should also provide written notice to the developer, builder or contractor, as applicable. Do this immediately. Failure to provide timely notice is just one of a number of pitfalls that await you if you hope to recover from those who might be responsible for any defects causing your ice dams. Keep in mind also that, to avoid an argument of spoliation (or destruction of evidence), you should be prepared to allow the builder or contractor to investigate the cause and effect of your ice dam problem. It would be wise to seek the assistance of an attorney familiar with these issues before potentially taking an action that compromises your ability to obtain a repair or recovery for your problem.

Whose Job Is it to Fix This?
Deciding who will be responsible to take steps to stop an ice damming problem becomes a challenging question. Conditions inside the structure usually cause the ice dams, but inside the structure does not necessarily mean inside an owner’s unit. The party responsible to perform the work may depend on the type of association involved (condominium or townhome). Moreover, both interior and exterior conditions may contribute to cause damage, and repairs may be necessary in both locations to prevent further problems.

A. Exterior.
The short term solution might be the easiest to identify. The association usually has the responsibility to maintain common elements and building exteriors. Frequently, this means the association should remove snow and ice from the roofs until a more permanent solution can be implemented. While it is a temporary solution to remove snow from the roof or to melt a channel in an ice dam, this should not be a permanent solution. Raking, shoveling, or even sweeping snow off of roofs, and especially efforts to chip ice away, are likely to damage the roof and should not be necessary if the roof system is performing properly. Moreover, depending upon the severity of the winter, clearing snow and ice from your roofs can quickly sap an association’s resources.

The association should examine the roof and fascia where an ice dam has formed to determine whether roofing materials were properly installed. If corrections are necessary to the shingles, underlayment, ice/water shield, or if a drip edge must be installed, the association should take steps to address these areas.

B. Interior.
A unit owner’s responsibility for making interior repairs or alterations to eliminate ice dams may depend on the type of community involved. In a condominium, unless the declaration states otherwise, the common elements include all portions of the association not contained within the unfinished interior surface of the owners’ units. This means the attics usually are part of the common elements. As such, the association will in most cases have the responsibility to maintain not only the roofs of a condominium, but also the attics. The association should, in such cases, evaluate and address any bypass air or ventilation issues.

In a townhome association, the attics usually are part of the unit. This means if a unit owner observes that he or she has ice dams, that owner may need to conduct his or her own investigation into any possible internal issues that are causing ice dams. If multiple owners have the same problems, however, it may be best to pursue the investigation and any alterations jointly, or with the association managing the process. This will maximize efficiency and perhaps lower the overall cost of the work. In addition, the association may have an interest in doing this work or ensuring that the alterations are consistent throughout all units because the building exterior will be affected if the ice dams return.

Who Gets the Bill?
Ice dams may generate several costs. First, there is the short-term need to remove the snow and ice that creates the ice dam itself, as well as the water that pools behind it. Longer term, the cause must be investigated. If leaks have occurred, the roof should be evaluated. Then there are the repairs that are necessary in light of this investigation. What follows are some thoughts about where to look for the money to pay for these things.

A. Insurance.
If an ice dam causes damage to the interior of a structure, this often will constitute an insured loss. Pursuant to most applicable policies, and certainly under Chapter 515B of Minnesota Statutes (also known as the Minnesota Common Interest Ownership Act, or MCIOA), the association’s insurance policy is to provide primary coverage for the loss. However, the association usually is entitled to allocate the deductible under its own policy against the owners whose units are involved in the claim or whose actions or inactions resulted in the loss. Ideally, owners will have HOA policies in place with loss assessment coverage, which will cover the association’s deductible if necessary. There may be reasons not to submit an insurance claim, however, such as avoiding an increase in insurance rates, or because the association intends to pursue the builder or contractor who is responsible for the conditions causing the ice dams.

B. Builder or Contractor.
If ice dams exist in a newer association, or if they began shortly after recent renovations or a re-roofing project, it is quite possible they’re a result of defective construction practices, and an express or implied warranty may cover the condition. As mentioned above, providing written notice to the builder and any applicable subcontractors is one step in preserving the right to obtain a recovery for the defect. However, there are several statutes of limitations that apply to claims for defective construction and breach of warranty. In addition, depending on the nature of your claims or the provisions of applicable purchase documents and governing documents, you may have to navigate potential restrictions or limitations on your ability to pursue a recovery. If you have any doubt whether you have a right to pursue a claim for recovery from your association’s builder or from your contractor, you should still pursue a full evaluation of the situation. Options may still exist even if you did not provide prompt written notice, or if the contractor has gone out of business or filed for bankruptcy, so you should never assume you have no chance at recovery. Of course, the earlier you pursue a complete evaluation, the better.

C. Common Expense: Shared vs. Allocated.
If insurance coverage is unavailable for performing necessary alterations or to correct deficiencies in the roof system, and recovery from the applicable builder is unavailable or unsuccessful, the association and the affected unit owner(s) must explore the proper solution. Associations may, and often do, choose to treat exterior work such as removing snow and ice, investigating the cause and fixing roofing issues, as a common expense borne equally by all owners. Note however, that if the association is governed by MCIOA, it is authorized by statute to allocate the cost of any work to fewer than all the units if only those units are benefitted by the work, as long as this is not prohibited by the declaration. Also, unless the association’s declaration requires otherwise, MCIOA associations that are performing work on limited common elements must allocate the cost of work on such areas to the unit(s) to which the limited common element is allocated. Note that, depending on your association’s declaration, limited common elements may include attics and/or roofs, meaning the cost of all necessary work might be allocated back to the benefited unit owner(s) if the association has reacted reasonably upon receiving notice of the problem.

This does not mean the association may pass along to owners the cost of obtaining an opinion regarding the association’s obligations, and the proper characterization of the area to be addressed (e.g., limited common element, common element, or a portion of a unit). This is not generally a cost directly attributable to maintenance, repair or replacement, and in most cases will not reasonably be considered a cost of enforcing the governing documents. There is no “one size fits all” approach, but this usually is a cost the association must bear as a common expense. Furthermore, if a party receives notice that snow on the roofs is turning into ice dams, that party risks liability for problems that it should have taken steps to avoid, but didn’t. For this reason, the association and its owners should cooperate as much as possible in diagnosing and eliminating the cause of ice dams, keeping in mind that both have something to lose if the problem is not promptly and permanently resolved.

Matt Drewes contributed this post, which is taken from an article appearing in the September/October issue of Minnesota Community Living magazine.  Matt is a Shareholder with Thomsen Nybeck.  He is the head of the firm’s nine-member Community Association Representation Group and the firm’s Creditors’ Remedies Group. and practices in the areas of business and real estate litigation and transactions, employment law, construction litigation, community association law, debtor/creditor law and insurance.  He has been included in Minneapolis/St. Paul Magazine’s list of Rising Stars for several years, and has been quoted on issues involving construction litigation, community associations and real property issues in the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minnesota Lawyer, Habitat Magazine, Minnesota Community Living Magazine, Yahoo!,,, and elsewhere.  He can be reached at or by phone at 952.835.7000.


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