Comment

Home unit quality is a burning issue for many

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The ACT Government has moved to significantly, and sometimes controversially, increase units as a proportion of the territory's housing stock in the name of environmental awareness and more affordable dwellings in recent times.

While both are commendable goals this has, inadvertently, created thousands of hostages to fortune by cutting future homeowners out of direct involvement in the construction of their homes.

Historically the great Australian dream has meant acquiring a block of land and then recruiting a builder to build the house of your dreams – or the closest to that you can afford.

Customers get to choose the quality of the fittings and can be involved in all the key decisions about the build if they care to make the effort.

Canberrans buying a unit off the plan can have a very different experience. Far too many have been left with a bitter aftertaste and seemingly endless out of pocket expenses as a result of quality issues arising from poor design and cost cutting.

The Canberra Times has reported on numerous instances where unit buyers have been left with far less than they have paid for.

The joy of moving into a new unit can quickly evaporate as individuals and young families struggle to keep up with ever increasing body corporate fees levied to fund emergency repairs and pay for legal fees against builders and developers.

Given the ACT Government's land release policy, described as social engineering by one local builder who said families were now putting off having children because they can't buy free-standing homes, helped create this situation it is only fair it is doing something to fix it.

Access Canberra has been working with building consultant Ross Taylor to develop better dispute resolution processes and education programs to try and turn the situation around for some time now.

It was Mr Taylor who warned of the looming unit quality crisis four years ago.

He cited a regulatory model that had shifted away from on site inspections to self policed compliance audits, the proliferation of poor design and some builders opting for profit over quality.

When problems do arise it can take years, and tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees, to even get a court judgement setting out what needs to be done and who would be doing it.

Mark McCabe, the ACT's work safety commissioner and construction occupations registrar, is completely correct when he says that with 10,000 new units, many of them along the Northbourne Avenue corridor, set to be approved by the ACT Government between 2015 and 2020 getting this right is a matter of urgency.

The three pronged approach, of educating developers and builders in how to deliver quality, making it easier to resolve disputes when they do arise and cracking down on recalcitrants who refuse to lift their game, definitely has merit.

That said, the proverbial elephant in the room, which has been a significant contributor to the push for many developers to cut corners whenever and wherever they can, is the well documented oversupply of apartment and unit accommodation.

Local builders and designers have repeatedly criticised the Land Development Agency for its emphasis on small blocks and unit sites, saying the current goal appears to be maximising the return to the government on every square metre of land sold.

The ACT Government has an opportunity to ensure these significant number of developments meet quality standards upfront, before they come out of the ground. Doing so won't just benefit the future owners or occupiers of these properties, it will also save the territory from a litany of difficult repairs and headaches in the coming years.