John Roughan

John Roughan is a Weekend Herald columnist

John Roughan: Blame game fuelling leaky home fiasco

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Most owners have to deal with flaws found in homes they've just bought. Photo / Bay of Plenty Times
Most owners have to deal with flaws found in homes they've just bought. Photo / Bay of Plenty Times

A builder had to rip some gib off my wall the other day to see how far joinery rot had travelled, and there on the exposed frame were two of the sweetest words I've ever seen: "treated timber".

The house was built long before the national building code became infected with a fatal combination of deregulation and environmentalism.

A house is by far the most expensive thing most of us ever buy and it carries the least consumer guarantee.

Buy a bad toaster and it will be replaced without question. Find a serious fault in a second hand car and a licensed dealer will have to do something about it.

But buy a house and find a roof leak or notice paint peeling off rising damp a few months after you move in and you lump it.

Possibly you could sue the seller, the agent, your lawyer, the council, or the builder if you can find him, but something tells you it wouldn't be worth it. There will be an out for them in the forms you signed.

You know it would be better to spend the money on repairs if possible, and if not, well, you'll probably do some painting before your next move. We pass these parcels around. "Leaky homes" are not new but the owners of those built between 1992 and 2005 have somebody to sue, more's the pity for all of us. Many of them are wasting money that could be used to make a start on repairs, rebuilding if necessary, wall by wall.

They bought those neat little toyland boxes with plaster walls and flush roofs, no eaves, no sills, no flashing, that suddenly proliferated in higher-density developments of the 1990s. Builders say they had their doubts about the weathertightness even then but the liberalised code permitted it and customers wanted it. What could they do?

Within 10 years the rot had set in. This newspaper exposed the disaster in 2002 and litigation started. The scale of the disaster is still hard to measure. Building Minister Maurice Williamson recently received an estimate from an advisory group of industry insiders that 89,000 buildings will "fail" within 15 years.

Leaky homes is our Chilean earthquake. If it were a natural disaster it would be covered by webs of international insurance. Nobody underwrites the risk of excessive deregulation.

Williamson's officials, desperately optimistic, have arbitrarily halved the estimate to 42,000 failures, which would cost $11 billion to repair. Even that sum is economically terrifying, the equivalent, as Williamson told the Weekend Herald last week, to the amount the Government spends on health or education in a year.

With the Budget in deficit, the Treasury borrowing $240 million a week and ministers obliged to squeeze savings out of all departments this year, Williamson admitted the Government has its head in its hands saying, "Well, I just don't know how to do this."

At last a moment of truth. Some problems may be too big for government to cure even if government caused them. At least the cause of this one was an act of omission not commission, too much was left to common sense. The cure could do with some common sense now.

Mounting claims on the public purse are not only costing money that could be spent on repairs, they are adding needlessly to the cost of repairs. Louise Cosgriff, a claims consultant who wrote an article for the Herald this week, complained that a "mystique" has been created that leaky homes' repair work "is more difficult, more complex and more risky than other building work."

Builders and supervisors were marketing themselves as "qualified" and "weathertightness certified", she wrote. "A limited pool of 'appropriately qualified' builders and surveyors creates scarcity and a premium price. The cost to repair can exceed the cost to demolish and start again."

On top of that cost, fearful councils were requiring all recladding to be supervised by building surveyors who charge up to $250 an hour. "Supervision costs in excess of $10,000 are common," she said. This is what usually happens when personal responsibility is displaced by blame and claims on councils.

The building code was fixed in 2005. Builders and inspections can be trusted to observe it. Leaky home-owners should be hiring them at ordinary competitive rates as soon as their personal finances permit. If the house has up to 15 years before the untreated timber rots they needn't panic.

They can do what other home-owners have to do when they have bought hidden structural problems. Or they can continue feeding a leaky homes industry that will compound the disaster.

- NZ Herald

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