Blind Freddy Would Have Spotted The Problems

[Author – Tim ODwyer]

Solicitor Bruce Simpson is a mate of mine. His little one-man legal office is in Cooroy, just inland from Noosa on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. He does a fair bit of conveyancing and, as a result, does a fair bit of whinging at home to his wife Kathryn. Like the ever-supportive spouses of so many Queensland conveyancing solicitors, Kathryn has to hear over and over again Bruce’s constant complaints about deceptive agents, flawed contracts, unsatisfactory building inspections and outstanding council approvals and inspections.

Finally school-teacher Kathryn had had a gutful. She sat down at the Simpson PC one night and proceeded to knock out a five-page letter to Queensland’s Sunday Mail. She set out all of Bruce’s complaints and concerns. Then got Bruce to sign it before she posted it next morning. The letter soon landed on the desk of the Sunday Mail’s property writer, Ronnie Girdham. She was stoked and started working on a story.

I came into the picture when Ronnie wanted to interview and photograph of couple Bruce’s conveyancing clients.

Bruce quickly gave Ronnie my name and number with the assurance that I had heaps of willing clients with real estate horror stories.

In my experience many Queensland homebuyers find themselves financially disadvantaged by the cost of checking out homes they’ve contracted to buy. Some folk get more disadvantaged than others.

First homebuyer clients of mine went looking and found a suburban Brisbane house they liked. After haggling on price they soon had a signed contract, but with a protective building inspection clause.

The agent said the rear deck and patio cover were “fully Council approved”. The sellers’ solicitors later made the same representation in writing to my firm.

In due course the buyers’ building inspection report mentioned significant faults including obvious termite damage, inadequate bracing to the deck, unsafe handrails and a rainwater problem with the deck roofing. “Check for Council approval”, the report added.

The inspector said “blind Freddy” would have seen these problems. Had the sellers or their agent known, but hoped no buyer would want an inspection? Or maybe a tame inspector might not have noticed?

My Council search disclosed a four-year old approval for the construction of the deck and patio cover, but the Council had no record of any foundation, frame or final inspections. The Council, of course, had not followed up the inspection conditions set out in its construction permit.

The sellers wouldn’t drop their price or rectify the faults, so the buyers crashed the contract under the terms of the inspection clause, got their deposit back, but wasted over a thousand dollars of their savings on their report, searches and legal costs.

In the meantime and undeterred, the couple found another house to buy. Another agent assured them that this house was “structurally sound”.

The same inspector went in again. He found cracking and movement in retaining walls, and questioned if these, the deck roof and a veranda roof were Council approved. He recommended urgent installation of “triple grips and saddle brackets” to make the veranda safe.

He also identified other structural problems under the floors, pointed out breached termite barriers and suggested an electrical inspection because of a “noisy” power board and “old wiring”.

The buyers were dismayed. One sad young couple cancelled their second contract, and wound up more out of pocket – although this time we held off on Council searches pending the building report.

How to protect home-buyers such as these? One reform is long overdue in Queensland. It would save buyers wasting time and money on defective houses. What is needed is a mandatory “home-worthy” certificate – a little like a “roadworthy” on used cars.

Sellers and agents would have to give this to prospective buyers. It would disclose all Council approvals, inspections, (passed, failed and outstanding) as well as unapproved additions and renovations. In New South Wales sellers are required to give buyers a warranty on structures being OK with the Council, while in Victoria sellers must provide up front particulars of all building permits. ACT residential sellers must give prospective buyers not only evidence of building approvals and inspections, but also copies of recent independent building inspectors’ and pest inspectors’ reports.

Until a consumer-friendly Queensland government legislates for such cost-effective full disclosure by home-sellers, home-buyers should not believe agents’ assurances about any house for sale.

Funny though how licensed agents in Queensland are expected by law to have a knowledge of building construction. One real estate training college claims its successful students will be able not only to “identify minor and major defects commonly found in buildings” but also to inspect a property, “provide a report detailing … any defects” and explain “the implications of these to clients and customers”.

Let’s hope some home-buyers, at least, can protect their savings by dealing with honest agents who are graduates of this college.

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