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Self-certification: boon or bane?

20/12/2003 Published in NST-PROP A Buyer Watch Article by National House Buyers Association

The Housing Minister should be lauded for his move to cut down the number of technical departments involved in the approval process for the issuance of Certificates of Fitness for Occupation (CF). But it is not entirely clear how these procedures would benefit the public.

Based on the National House Buyers Association’s (HBA) understanding of the matter, there are some potential pitfalls if the implementation of self-certification is not studied thoroughly and if there is anything less than close coordination between the relevant departments. The adverse ramifications could be more far-reaching for buyers than the benefits that may be derived from such a streamlining exercise.

Currently, architects are the fiduciary guardians of the regulated sale and purchase agreements between the buyers and developers under the Housing Development Act 1966. Even under this arrangement, the HBA has seen a large number of complaints brought by buyers against not just errant developers but also the professionals they hire.

There appears no sign that such complaints will diminish, judging from the high incidence of shoddy workmanship, premature and/or inaccurate certification and premature hand-over of vacant possession before the application of CF.

In certain instances, such action taken by architects are done principally to assist and/or allow developers to make premature and unlawful claims from purchasers in order to avoid the exposure to liability for late delivery and other defaults from buyers.

In fact, even some bankers succumb to releasing payments based on certification of progressive works by architects without even verifying whether it is premature or not.

If there is a common thread that can be found in all these instances, it is that the architects were under pressure and coerced into submitting to the developers’ wishes through arm twisting tactics. Such cases aren’t as isolated as one may imagine and it is a problem that even Persatuan Akitek Malaysia recognises, prompting it to issue a very stern circular to its members in February last year.

What the current system requires is an external audit as a prerequisite to the issuance of CFs. This is a system of “counter-checking” that can be slow and time-consuming.

But buyers have to bear in mind that by removing the last tiers of verification and without any check and balance mechanism in place, errant developers and professionals may end up with a free rein to act to their detriment. Even with statutory penalties and a host of other deterrents, such breaches of trust are on the rise. Where would we be if they are removed altogether?

Architects aside, self-certification also brings engineers into the equation.

Take the example of the “slower” inspection by the authorities of roads and drains. If inspectors are sceptical of compliance with the road specifications, they would “core” the relevant section for a lab test.

Now, imagine the removal of this line of defence. An errant developer may be tempted to cut corners with the compliance of specifications by getting its “obliging” consultants to certify that the roads are in order.

It will be hard for the consultants to resist when confronted with the harsh reality that only the ‘obliging’ consultants will survive under such market forces. Consultants with integrity may find themselves out of business in no time if they do not toe the line.

Complete deregulation only works when all parties learn to respect the rights of others, which in HBA’s view is a Utopian dream.

Perhaps a combination of self-certification for some technical aspects with rules clearly set out and mandatory checks on those aspects that involve life and safety with stringent rules to be observed should be adopted.

And in so far as liability is concerned, a party that verifies a building is fit for occupation must accept legal liability on the same basis as local councils. Furthermore, such parties must show proof of adequate insurance so that compensation can be claimed by anyone suffering loss as a result of any liability that results from negligence.


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