ACT News


Building crisis from bad deals, poor work

An obsession with cost over quality, the ease with which unskilled people can obtain a building licence, ''phoenixing'' and changes to quality controls have all contributed to a crisis of confidence in the ACT building industry, the deputy executive director of the Master Builders Association says.

Former ACT building inspector Jerry Howard said it had become far too easy for individuals to qualify as builders.

While he did not have exact figures, he believed the number of builders practicing in the territory doubled during last year's boom.

''There has been a phenomenal increase,'' Mr Howard said. ''It is too easy to become a player in the industry, either as the owner of a building company [using a nominee] or as a licensed builder.

''It is easier to become a licensed builder, with responsibility for the total job, than it is to become an electrician or a plumber.''

Mr Howard said it was possible to obtain qualifications of dubious worth from ''training organisations that are not as reputable as they should be''.


This was a trap for consumers who believed a licensed builder had to have significant trade experience.

''[Under the current system] you can be a public servant one day and a builder the next,'' Mr Howard said.

Phoenixing related to companies that collapsed one day with a pile of debts and rose the next day with the same assets and customers and a slightly different name.

The combination of underqualified and inexperienced builders underquoting each other to win business from consumers who, in many cases, were making their final decision on price was an economically explosive mix.

''There has been a race to the bottom where good builders are having to compromise to match prices by people who underquote just to buy business and will then either cut corners to secure their profit or just come back for more money once they have the customer on the hook,'' Mr Howard said.

''Legitimate builders are being caught out on the last payment because people are obtaining certificates of occupancy [which actually involves accepting the job], moving in and then deciding they're not happy with the paint job or some other detail. They become vexatious clients.''

Mr Howard said there had been a shift away from a culture of quality to a culture of compliance with rules and regulations. He said he worked with builders on quality issues when he a building inspector in the ACT. ''I can't understand how we lost the plot so completely.''

The MBA had only accepted private certification, an issue that had cropped up time and time again as a point of friction in building disputes, on the basis there would be a ''robust audit system'' and that work would be checked.

''Building will always be very much about putting one brick on top of another. To be a builder involves managing work in all weathers, using a wide range of materials, all of which have different characteristics, and with the involvement of a team of workers and subcontractors representing a wide range of different trades,'' he said.

''Each material has its own peculiarities and choices about what to use need to be made on the basis of durability versus sustainability. While builders are responsible for a building for 10 years after its completion, some of the materials a client may want to use won't last that long in the environment, especially if the property is not maintained appropriately.''

Mr Howard said consumers had to take ownership of what would be the biggest ever purchase.

''Commissioning a new home is not the same as buying a new car; you need to start with a good design, pick the right materials and ask questions about what is being done at every step of the way.''

Mr Howard said the MBA supported plans to rewrite the building act to increase consumer protection.

''At the moment it is not even mandatory to have a building contract in the ACT.''

A website, similar to one pioneered in Queensland, which listed information on builders and companies would also pay dividends, Mr Howard said. ''The more information there is out there for consumers the better,'' he said. ''Good builders could only benefit as long as the data was fair and accurate.''