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Website plan alerts buyers to dodgy builders

Date

David Ellery

ACT Attorney-General and Environmental and Sustainable Development Minister Simon Corbell.

ACT Attorney-General and Environmental and Sustainable Development Minister Simon Corbell. Photo: Colleen Petch

The ACT government is considering a builders' information website, similar to one in Queensland, to help alert prospective home builders to dodgy and inexperienced operators.

Under the Queensland scheme people go online to check if a builder is licensed, if they have been ''disciplined'' for conduct breaches, what work they are qualified to do, if they are bankrupt, how many years they have been working and how many jobs they have finished.

An ACT website is being considered in the wake of growing consumer unrest about the state of the ACT residential building industry, rocked by an unprecedented number of company collapses in recent years.

''I am acutely aware of the harm being caused by builders and other construction licence holders who abuse their privilege to engage in their trade,'' ACT Attorney-General and Environmental and Sustainable Development Minister Simon Corbell told Fairfax Media.

He said the Environmental and Sustainable Development Directorate was researching a proposed rewrite of the 2004 ACT Building Act.

In the last six months Fairfax has investigated the collapse of four separate ACT building companies, and allegations of substandard work at two apartment complexes.

Dozens of consumers have been affected by these issues, with the total value of the work involved estimated at almost $50 million. In every case customers said a website to check out builders' claims would have saved them anguish, tens of thousands of dollars and years of their lives.

One Gungahlin couple, Asik Hossain and his wife, Karzi Farzana Nahar, have put their hopes of starting a family on hold because the house they commissioned in September 2009 is still unfinished.

Courtney Trinder and partner Matt Smith waited almost two years for their Forde home to be finished while two builders went bust.

Mr Corbell said the ACT ESDD investigated more than 300 complaints about licensed builders in 2011-12. Of these, 46 were identified as complex and 17 involved litigation.

Twenty-three rectification orders were issued, of which 14 were appealed. Nineteen infringement notices totalling $29,363 (average of $1545) were issued.

Frank LoPilato, a 25-year veteran of the insolvency industry and a partner with RSM Bird Cameron Canberra, said there had been an unprecedented spike in the number of building companies running into difficulties in the last 18 months or so.

''Whereas before then it would have been unusual for one company to go under (in any given year), we now have a situation where at least four or five have gone since mid-2010,'' he said.

Mr Corbell said the ESDD had already discussed with the industry the possible reinstatement of ''clerks of works'' on building sites, and that the matter was under consideration.

A clerk of works monitors the quality of building as it goes on, and acts in the interests of the future owner.

Calls for a ''one stop shop'' for consumers, who have told Fairfax that negotiating the bureaucratic maze to have their complaints addressed was a big source of frustration, have been put in the ''too hard'' basket.

''It is not possible to have a one-stop shop for every matter,'' Mr Corbell said.

''The government is working on improving how the regulators work together to address breaches across multiple laws by one entity.''

He said all complaints about building quality were investigated.

''The ability to take action is only as good as the evidence that can be gathered. Critical to any of the investigations is the evidence from the complainants themselves. In some cases complainants find the process daunting.''

Mr Corbell said the ACT government did not keep records of building companies that go into administration or liquidation, and that it did not have a ''legal duty of care'' to ensure ACT residents could commission new homes confident they would be constructed to the appropriate standards, be finished in the specified time and that the builder would not fold while the project was under construction.

''The government does have a duty to enforce the law,'' he said. ''It is determined to do what is possible to ensure that companies and individuals in the construction industry are accountable for any harm they cause consumers.''

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