House buying: how the gullible can end up in trouble

Robin Howes says watch out for the traps for the unwary

Robin Howes, professional building surveyor

Robin Howes is baffled by people who invest $25 million in Sai Kung houses without knowing what they are buying.

A professional building surveyor who lives at Tai Mong Tsai, Robin can cite plenty of horror stories about the gullible floundering in the local property market. “One couple bought a house with a walled garden. This is nice, isn’t it, they said to each other. We’ll be able to park in the garden right by the house. No, they couldn’t. A neighbor owned a one-metre strip of land in front of their property and wouldn’t let them drive in. That was expensive.”

Robin is involved in another case where people have bought a house, but access to it is through a lot owned by someone else. “The lawyer won’t go check who owns the lot, because he operates in the city and has no understanding of NT property.”

This is not Robin’s business: He’s a registered professional surveyor and authorised person who works on the licensing of major entertainments such as Cavalia and acts as an expert witness in property disputes. But he is happy to advise.

“Too many people spend $25 million without knowing what they are really buying. Are they buying all of the garden or is it on a short-term tenancy?  Are they buying the sunroof and the amah’s quarters?  Will they have the carpark they expect? Will they even be able to access the front door?”

Robin said the big issues when buying a house are access, unauthorised building works and whether the structure is legal. He explained:

THE LOT: “You must get the lot index plan from the District Lands Office. Make sure the house, road and footpath are not crossing anyone else’s lot.  The lawyers should check it has a certificate of compliance. This says the DLO has seen the house is the right size in the right position. If a previous owner has done a nice job enlarging it, you won’t get a certificate of compliance. Restitution may be expensive.” Robin said slopes should be checked for signs of slippage and water courses for seasonal flow.

THE HOUSE: “Many have unauthorised structures on them. At some stage you will be told to take them down. If it’s an unauthorised basement you’ve got a problem. Have the building checked for signs of structural failure. Are the balconies starting to collapse? Have internal walls been taken out weakening the building? Is the roof waterproofed? Is steel reinforcing corroded?”

THE UTILITIES: “Septic tanks may need to be pumped out. New Sai Kung residents may not realise they are going to have to have the septic tank pumped out every six months, otherwise it will overflow. Don’t try to build a swimming pool on top of the septic tank. Make sure the electrical system is at least 150 amps, not 50 as you will find in some old buildings. Check on water supply. Some houses have only a well.”

The simple answer when buying a house to avoid nasty discoveries later, Robin said, is to hire a building surveyor. But not him. He’s too busy on more interesting and better paying work.

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