Why I will never buy a new apartment in Sydney
The Sydney Morning Herald
10 February 2017
Do you know how much I would not buy a new Sydney apartment? Happens
I've just sold my house and am vaguely considering a flat. But I'd
think a thousand times before taking on one of the cookie-cutter white
boxes spewing from the development industry in the name of "solving the
housing crisis". Why? An entire flotilla of reasons, from dishonesty
and outright danger to ugliness, insecurity and an abuse, frankly, of
the idea of home. Caveat emptor all right. Buyer be(very)ware.
The development industry brays constantly about housing
unaffordability, as if they couldn't solve it at a blow, if they chose,
by accepting a small-to-reasonable profit instead of gouging.
"Apartment approvals dropping," ran the Urban Taskforce's press release
of January 10, as though "approvals" were essential to social
wellbeing. "Urban renewal lags behind", ran subsequent releases; "Next
premier must continue to drive Sydney's growth" – as though Sydney
weren't already gripped by its biggest building boom ever, and most of
it apartments. "Minister Roberts must drive housing supply."
G'awn. Pull the other one. As if the confluence of cheap money, global
instability, overseas investors, negative gearing and off-the-books
rentals weren't making Sydney a guaranteed seller's market, keeping
prices rocket high regardless of supply. As if.
We should at least quit pretending.
We should at least quit pretending. The real result of government
red-tape snipping is a vast slew of potential future slums. Far too
often shoddy, infuriating, ugly and dangerous, they're the very
opposite of sustainable density; designed to enrich developers and
lawyers for decades while diminishing both the private amenity and
public pleasure of this lovely, impossible city.
this crazy growth is not the solution. It's the problem.
Even at the 2011 census (says UNSW's City Futures Research Centre), 27
per cent of all greater Sydney dwellings were strata titled. Since
then, strata apartments have been the fastest-growing sector in this
wildly overheated industry. Contrary to the propaganda, this crazy
growth is not the solution. It's the problem.
Dangers are legion. Quite apart from design issues – a prevailing
meanness, sterility, sameness and joylessness – there are practical
buying off the plan
The most glaring is buying off the plan. Clearly, developers love this,
getting cash up front. Less great for the human. You're liable for
stamp duty a year or more before settlement; you can find your contract
rescinded if the developer thinks your apartment has inflated past the
agreed figure; and, most depressingly, the apartment you finally get
can be far shoddier than agreed in finish and fit-out, and perhaps 20
per cent less in area, no comeback.
A sensible person would refuse to shell out for such an abstraction,
insisting on something she could touch, smell and measure. But even so,
she'll likely fall in.
private certification (inspections)
One reason is private certification. We've now had almost 20 years of
this shrugging-off of government responsibility for building adequacy
to the private sector – as paid (you guessed it) by the developer. Has
it worked? Not exactly.
A 2015 report by former NSW Treasurer Michael Lambert found that NSW's
certification system has "well-documented deficiencies …[that]
contribute to poor development outcomes, consumer dissatisfaction and
increased rectification costs."
Veteran building consultant Robert Hart is more succinct. "It's
monstrously dangerous," he says. "An abomination. We now have tens of
thousands of apartments affected by shoddy workmanship, rubbish
materials, bad waterproofing."
adequate standards seldom mandatory
Even where adequate standards exist, they're seldom mandatory, and more
seldom enforced. Geoff Crittenden, chief executive of the Welding
Technology Institute of Australia, predicts public danger from faulty
footbridges, buildings, silos made of cheap and poorly fabricated
imported steel: "about 85 per cent of the 600,000 tonnes of fabricated
steel imported into Australia every year is non-compliant."
As to fire, Michael Lambert noted, "there is no certification process
based on accredited certifiers to properly assess fire safety systems".
Says strata lawyer Suzie Broome: "It's amazing how many buildings today
aren't fire compliant from the get go ... In the rush to buy into the
hot property market, buyers are spending less time considering the
contract and the actual product than they do visiting a car yard to buy
The most dramatic instance was the Lacrosse residential tower in
Melbourne Docklands where a cigarette butt left on a balcony engulfed
13 storeys in flame within 15 minutes. The cladding material was
Alucobest, a Chinese composite panel indistinguishable from Alucobond –
until you add the match.
CFMEU's Michael Connor: "This product is rife. It's used in buildings
throughout Australia ... particularly in high-rise buildings."
Inspections? Pah! Who pays the piper calls the tune.
For almost a year, the government has promised to "fix important
information gaps about certification" – but it hasn't happened yet.
Everywhere you look are buildings with shonky-looking plastic wood
balconies or faux-metal sheet cladding that waves and buckles in the
wind. It's what the building industry calls "investor-grade product."
(Investor grade product is developer
industry term for inferior build quality accepted by investors,
intended for rentals.—author)
the strata system itself (Condo Act)
Then there's the strata system itself. We act like an apartment is a
simple commodity, like a house. Not so. You don't buy a dwelling. You
buy the space between the paint finishes, and a share in the physical
fabric. This locks you into a corporate decision-making system for
which most Australians are unprepared; a system where (despite the new
Strata Act's supposed "checks and balances") a majority can force you
to sell for demolition, and where prodding your owners' corporation to
act fairly, insure wisely, read documents intelligently or remediate
promptly can bring years of nightmare.
Add the jellyfish issue of short-stay holiday letting (aka Airbnb),
which can turn your building into a relentless party-house that
affords you neither peace nor control – yet which a NSW Parliamentary
Committee recently recommended for across-the-board "exempt and
Magnify each of these problems by the growing preponderance of "large"
schemes (more than 50 dwellings), and of majority owner-investors (now
52 per cent of Sydney schemes). Then you get close to the gist.
We used to think '60s apartments were austere and badly built. Now,
they appear as paragons of generosity, grace and certitude. Indeed,
perhaps today's tacky eggcrate-itecture, with its pervasive message of
"you lambs, we slaughter" is less aesthetic failure than successful and
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