Tomorrow marks seven years since the first earthquake hit Canterbury. Since then, thousands of homes have been razed and tens of thousands more repaired. Or have they? Lawyers and experts believe Christchurch is sitting on a multi-billion dollar ticking time-bomb.

Ken and Lucy Palepoi felt like they'd won Lotto. Owning their own home before they'd even turned 30. Two kids, a third on the way.

As soon as they moved in in 2015, they hung a picture. "Being able to put a nail in the wall, in your own wall. That felt pretty good," Ken says.

The 1940s character home, with its stucco cladding and rounded edges, was perfect for the young family who'd just moved to Christchurch from Dunedin for work opportunities. And it was paying off.

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The Woolston home needed some attention, but they were happy to chip away, when they could afford it.

"Everything pointed to this house having really good bones," Lucy says.

They paid above market value. Earthquake repairs were already organised - some were already done, they were told. Exterior plasterwork cracking, minor cosmetic stuff. To be on the safe side, the Palepois got the Earthquake Commission (EQC) deed of assignment.

But months went on and nobody came. Lucy, stay-at-home mum, chased up EQC. Finally, an assessor arrived. It was deemed a $30,000 patch-up job. EQC passed over the money and the Palepois got plasterers to size up the job.

One quoted $42,000 but wouldn't guarantee his work until the 70-year old foundations were looked at. Cracks there were dismissed as minor by EQC assessors. Pre-1970s foundations were suddenly a major issue for Christchurch homeowners.

Lucy and Ken Palepoi with their children, from left, Liliana, 2, Leilani, 8, and Tai'moana, 4. Photo / Kurt Bayer
Lucy and Ken Palepoi with their children, from left, Liliana, 2, Leilani, 8, and Tai'moana, 4. Photo / Kurt Bayer

And the Palepois were told EQC plaster repairs from 2011 were shoddy.

The 2016 Valentine's Day quake "reopened a spider's web of cracks", Lucy says. Windows wouldn't shut properly.

It was clear the damage was more than cosmetic. "I hounded EQC," Lucy says. "I'd ring them and play nice. I'd ring them and cry. I'd ring them and yell."

Last December, they finally got another EQC assessment. It returned grim findings. One corner of the house is sinking. The property needs lifting up, so workers can dig 4m deep to find solid ground to build new foundations.

The repairs will soar past the EQC repair cap of $100,000. After that, it goes to their insurance company. But the insurer's policy in such situations is to pay the indemnity value of repairs because of the home's wear and tear. The rest falls with the Palepois. And now, their lawyers.

"We were so naive," Lucy says.

"We just thought we'd done everything right. Being vigilant by getting the deed of assignment. Nothing pointed to repairs even remotely going over cap.

"Anyone buying a house in Christchurch needs to know. Even if the repairs have been signed off, if it's a shoddy repair job, then they're left with a massive bill or a house worth nothing."

And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Almost seven years after the Christchurch earthquakes, thousands of homes remain in an unacceptable condition, despite EQC repairs and payouts. Photo / Getty Images
Almost seven years after the Christchurch earthquakes, thousands of homes remain in an unacceptable condition, despite EQC repairs and payouts. Photo / Getty Images
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fter the earthquakes, Bevan Craig spent hours wandering through the cracked and twisted residential red zone.

Entire eastern subdivisions were wrecked. More than 7200 homes would eventually be razed, leaving a rough, barren wasteland where grasses would slowly sprout behind wire fences.

As a house foundation specialist, Craig had a professional interest in what lay beneath all homes there.

Many Christchurch houses built before the 1970s had rubble foundations - stone in different grades of concrete, aggregate and plaster. The rest of New Zealand stopped using the method in the 1920s.

Craig became concerned the cracks seen in these foundations were being too quickly repaired by EQC. Epoxy resin or waterproof filler was used to patch them up. Often the damage was assessed as being old, pre-quakes.

The problem never went away. Out of a total of 26,879 domestic over-cap claims, 384 are unresolved. Insurers have paid out $20.1 billion on the staggeringly high 142,346 domestic claims and 26,248 commercial claims in Canterbury as of June 30 this year.

Through his independent house insurance assessment firm Underfoot Services, Craig has worked with 9000 homeowners over the past six years. He estimates as many as 60,000 pre-1970s houses may have been incorrectly assessed and repaired. "The majority of people who have these homes are sitting on ticking time-bombs," he says.

A sign outside a Christchurch home in 2011. Photo / Greg Bowker
A sign outside a Christchurch home in 2011. Photo / Greg Bowker

Documents released in June under the Official Information Act revealed EQC accepted there were around 11,500 claims relating to botched repairs. Many were minor, others land and drainage claims. As of June 30, EQC says it was down to managing 2764 call-back repairs, as well as 1011 underfloor repairs. EQC stresses it's important that in the wider context, it received more than 469,000 claims for the 2010 and 2011 quakes.

"Our policy is to ensure that all customers receive their full entitlement for any loss or damage that was directly caused by a natural disaster," an EQC spokesman says.

"This has been our approach since the Canterbury earthquakes and any homeowner who believes that their foundations may have earthquake-related damage can discuss their situation with EQC.

"Many homes in Canterbury were built before 1970 and had foundation damage or structural weakness that was there before the earthquakes. It is not uncommon for their foundations to be damaged due to causes other than an earthquake, such as cracking caused by natural drying shrinkage, weathering, as well as corrosion of reinforcing materials.

"There are repair solutions available for repairing houses and foundations and each is assessed individually. Once a decision is made to undertake a repair, then the work must meet the requirements of all of the relevant legislation, including the EQC Act."

Abandoned homes at Redcliffs, as they sit on the edge of the cliff after the cliff face collapsed, when the 6.3 earthquake struck Christchurch. Photo / Brett Phibbs
Abandoned homes at Redcliffs, as they sit on the edge of the cliff after the cliff face collapsed, when the 6.3 earthquake struck Christchurch. Photo / Brett Phibbs

But Andrew Hooker of Shine Lawyers believes there are "hundreds, if not thousands, of seriously botched repairs".

"When I say seriously botched, I mean repairs that were EQC patched-up cracks in foundations and a proper assessment reveals the entire foundation is stuffed, so you're talking $300,000-$500,000 repair jobs. The scale is massive. There are potentially billions of dollars at stake."

Hooker has more than 50 clients in situations similar to the Palepois. But with time - or indeed more shaking like last year's magnitude 5.7 Valentine's Day jolt - homeowners notice that "things aren't quite as they should be".

"So EQC admits, 'Yep we stuffed your repairs up, here's $100,000, which is our limited liability under the EQC Act (Earthquake Commission Act 1993).' And I say, 'No, you stuffed up these people's houses, you need to pay the lot'," Hooker says.

And that will fall back on the taxpayer.

Dozens of claims from people in situations similar to the Palepois have been filed in the High Court in recent days. More will come in the following weeks.

The Insurance Council of New Zealand (ICNZ) has previously told Cantabrians the main residential private insurers would not rely on the Limitations Act before September 4, 2017 - the seven-year anniversary of the magnitude 7.1 tremor that sparked the devastating 2010-2011 Canterbury earthquake sequence.

There are different interpretations of how the Act applies, and individual insurers and EQC, have taken a range of positions.

Tim Grafton.
Tim Grafton.

ICNZ chief executive Tim Grafton says there is no need for homeowners to rush to court and incur costs to protect their legal position. "You can simply make a call to your insurer to understand its position on its Limitation Act rights in relation to your claim."

Lawyers, insurance advocates, and homeowners spoken to by the Herald on Sunday are worried, however, they'll be left to foot the bill of quake-damaged homes if they don't act now.

"We're filing proceedings in court saying that the insurer and/or EQC have not repaired the house to policy standards, and/or that the repairs are defective ... and to get a ruling on whether EQC has to pay the lot," says Hooker, whose firm filed "about 50" proceedings in the past few days. In the next few months, he expects "possibly two to three times that amount".

Hooker was still receiving "desperate requests for help" on Thursday night.

"Time is ticking on and EQC and insurers will be able to rely on things like the Limitation Period if people aren't careful. By then it's too late and they can't sue anyone.

"It has been seven years, so imagine how many homes that have had botched repairs have since been sold and people moved on and changed their lives.

"People in the rest of New Zealand have no idea how big the problem is."

Aerial view of liquefaction and earthquake damaged houses in Burwood, Christchurch. Photo / Geoff Sloan
Aerial view of liquefaction and earthquake damaged houses in Burwood, Christchurch. Photo / Geoff Sloan

Law firm Anthony Harper has filed two proceedings where insurance companies have refused to defer reliance on a Limitation Act defence after today. Both the claims are with the insurer, not EQC.

"However, we are drafting many more proceedings, for clients who only have extensions from their insurer to October 2, 2017. A number of these claims are still with EQC and have not yet been passed to the insurer," says Lisa Taylor, senior associate at Anthony Harper.

Labour pledged last weekend to commit to a Royal Commission of Inquiry into EQC to "get to the bottom of many issues Cantabrians have faced in recent years" - a call supported by Hooker and Bourke.

Labour also promised to establish an arbitration tribunal with an inquisitorial focus as an alternative pathway for claimants, EQC and insurers to resolve disputes.

ICNZ rubbished the arbitration service proposal as a "misconceived, poorly thought through seat-of-the-pants policy that runs roughshod over natural justice", claiming the existing system, including the legal system, does enough to resolve insurance claims.

Labour's Christchurch Central candidate Duncan Webb questioned why ICNZ would be "so defensive and negative" towards something that looks to be a way to resolve "nightmarish situations for so many people".

Gerry Brownlee. Photo / Jason Oxenham
Gerry Brownlee. Photo / Jason Oxenham

Former Canterbury Earthquake Recovery Minister Gerry Brownlee has repeatedly backed the work of EQC. During an election debate in Christchurch this week, he provoked a chorus of boos when he labelled it a "roaring success".

Mel Bourke, of earthquake claimant advocacy group EQC Fix, bought a repaired St Albans rental property in February last year only to find the repairs were sub-standard.

Grasping for solutions and trying to understand her rights, she was stunned there was no group to represent the homeowners and help with key decisions.

"It doesn't matter if you're a surgeon or a solo mum, when you ride through a [magnitude] 7 or 6 earthquake and your home is destroyed, you know nothing about insurance and you know nothing about insurance law.

"You're emotionally devastated and you're vulnerable. There is so much you need to know to make sure your claim is not mishandled.

"Your home is your one place where you want to feel safe from the world, and the insurance companies and the Government are taking the fight into your living room and you have no escape."

In April last year, a group of 98 homeowners won a landmark High Court settlement that confirmed EQC is obliged to repair homes to a "when new" standard.

But more people are coming forward all the time.

"There are so many people here, as homes change hands, as people delve into things a bit more, who are finding failed EQC repairs and they just don't know where to start. We're contacted with people like that every month and it's heartbreaking," Bourke says.

"For every home that EQC has cash settled, every home they've touched, every home they've forced under the cap, then the New Zealand Government should be accountable or liable to put right.

"If a volcano hits Auckland, they're just as vulnerable as us. People don't understand that it's one thing to have an insurance policy, it's completely different for an insurer to pay a claim."