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Do homework before buying

04/01/2009 The Star By Hariati Azizan

What can you do when your dream home becomes a death trap? As the recent landslide tragedy revealed, house buyers do not have a whole lot of protection.

WHEN he moved to Bukit Antarabangsa about 16 years ago, Abdul Rasyid, 59, could not believe his luck.

“I knew we found our dream home. It was in a beautiful area, green and peaceful. Over the years, the only problem was the access road, which was often cut off by landslides,” he said.

Last month, however, a landslide destroyed the houses next to his, killing five of his neighbours.

His house was miraculously left standing. But like thousands of residents in the area, he and his family members were evacuated to ensure their safety.

Last week, it was announced that 2,000 people from 188 houses in the area could return home. Not surprisingly, only a handful confirmed that they will move back.

As Abdul Rasyid lamented, it’s a tough choice.

“I have invested a lot in my house and I can’t afford to just abandon it. But at the same time, the safety of my family is priority. Still, who can I sell my house to? Who will want to buy the property now?”

Abdul Rasyid is one of many caught in a bind over the possible loss of their life investment. Worse still, they are also burdened by huge housing loans.

Although it is too early to tell if the value of property around the Bukit Antarabangsa area has plummeted, the prospect is bleak.

High-risk spots

The Selangor Government recently listed 15 housing estates around Bukit Antarabangsa – a few occupied for more than a decade – as high-risk places for landslides.

Although Selangor Mentri Besar Tan Sri Khalid Ibrahim assured residents that they could still choose to stay in their hillside homes, he also told them to face the consequences.

A resident (who only wanted to be known as Wong) from Taman Melawati, one of the housing estates listed as risky, complained that the options were not made clear.

“Now that our housing area is considered risky, what can we do now? Many are scared but it will be difficult to move and sell our houses, especially in the current economic climate,” she said.

Since the tragedy, the authorities have been quick to blame house buyers for the over-development of areas on hill slopes.

The problem would not have occurred, they reason, if there was no demand for hill-slope properties.

However, National House Buyers Association honorary secretary-general Chang Kim Loong said Malaysian house buyers had a right to expect safe and sound quality construction, regardless of where the houses were.

“It is wrong to blame them for irresponsible hill-slope developments, he said, adding that buyers were vulnerable to errant developers.

“Although it is the responsibility of the house buyers to do their homework before buying a property, it is easier said than done because it is not mandatory for developers to submit all their plans and approvals to the prospective buyers,”

Chang said most developers were not transparent about details of their building projects.

“There was an instance when someone bought a corner lot but when the house was completed, he discovered that the extra land was actually a slope.”

“That is why it is important for buyers to check everything before signing the sales and purchase agreement. They have to demand for all documents, from contour maps to reports on soil and disclosure of agencies involved.

“Not many developers provide all the documents and plans to prospective buyers, sometimes even when they are asked for it,” he noted, stressing the need for the Government to make it compulsory for the developers to disclose all relevant paperwork and information to buyers before any deals are made.

Chang said buyers need to be made aware of the risks of purchasing any house, not just hill-slope properties.

He said for example, there were also areas that were prone to floods.

Need for reinforcement

“As for hill-slope developments, it is not impossible, but the correct structure and slope reinforcement is needed.

“When the development is completed, the slope needs to be maintained. It should be mandatory for developers to make this clear to the prospective house buyers,” he added.

But as he put it, the law would mean nothing without proper implementation.

There are already many legislations to protect house buyers and to promote home ownership including the Housing Development (Control & Licensing) Act, 1966, Building & Common Property (Maintenance and Management) Act, 2007 and Strata Titles Act, 1985.

Chang opined that these laws have failed to ensure adequate protection for house buyers against stalled, abandoned and defective houses.

“This is mainly due to a lack of monitoring, policing and enforcement by the relevant authorities,” he said, stressing the importance of the House Buyers’ Bill of Rights.

The recent moratorium on ongoing hill developments, for instance, has raised concern among a few house buyers.

“I support the stop-work order because it is good measure to manage the risky situation. However, at the same time, I hope the Government will not overlook the predicament of house buyers,” said Chang.

Ng: ‘The moment we sell the property, it comes under the care of the owner who is responsible for maintaining the land’
He noted that those who have bought houses on hill slopes, where work has been stopped by the authorities, would need to forfeit 10% of their payment if they want to get out of the agreement.

“If the development is more than 50% complete, the forfeiture is 20%. In this situation, homeowners will be in a fix because the developers cannot really be blamed for the delay. If the developer goes bankrupt, that is it, they will lose all their money.”

The Real Estate and Housing Developers’ Association (Rehda) president Datuk Ng Seing Liong, however, argued that developers should not be solely blamed for the problems.

He drew attention to the three stages in any development project – planning, building and maintenance.

“Each stage involves different parties, and the moment we sell the property, it comes under the care of the owner, who has responsibility to maintain the land. If it is public land, then the responsibility to maintain it comes under the local authority. Developers do not collect assessment,” noted Ng.

Rehda also urged for standards on housing development, particularly hill-slope development.

Call for transparency

“One weakness related to hill-slope development is the lack of master planning and transparency in the land development and building process.

“It is important that information on hill-slope developments be made available to developers and land owners so that buildings in such areas are not carried out without sufficient input on future upstream and downstream projects in the area,” Ng said, adding that such developments should not be approved and carried out discreetly.

He declined to comment on possible corruption in the system but said, “It takes two to tango. Developers can’t start a project without approval from local authorities.”

Ng added that a new geological survey should be conducted nationwide to reclassify areas that were suitable for development.

“The authorities can then come up with guidelines for developers,” he said.

He said the Hulu Kelang area was an example where numerous housing estates mushroomed in spite of countless warnings by experts on the risk of overdeveloping the area.

In the last 15 years, there were 13 major landslides in the Hulu Kelang area, of which five were in Bukit Antarabangsa. Studies by the Public Works Department predict that more will occur.

Chang advised house owners in the 15 “risky” housing areas to seek advice from professional bodies such as the Institution of Engineers Malaysia on slope remedial measures to protect themselves.

“They have no choice. They need to reinforce the slope first and not wait until something bad happens,” he said.

He said house owners could seek recourse from the authorities.

“It is our duty to mitigate the losses. So, what we can do is to strengthen the turf first, then sue the Government for recovery.

“The only problem is that even if we win there is no guarantee that we can get the punitive charges because of Section 95 of the Street, Drainage and Building Act which protects the approving authorities of development projects from personal liability.

“That needs to be reviewed,” he said, citing the Highland Towers case which saw the local council exonerated from any responsibility in the tragedy.

Is stopping the demand for properties in risky areas such as hill slopes the only way to reduce similar predicaments for house buyers?

As MCA Government Policy Monitoring Bureau head and MCA vice-president Datuk Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek wrote in his blog, the danger is usually dormant.

“We take it that the buildings are safe after the authorities have approved it and certified it fit for occupation. However, buyers have to be more careful when purchasing houses on hill slopes. They can be time bombs,” he said.

Chang agreed that no matter how sturdy the structure was and how well-maintained the property, risks would always exist.

He agreed that cutting off demand might be the only way for house owners to put a stop to irresponsible hill-slope development.

“Personally, I think you need to think about the safety of your family. Developers can go on developing hills but I hope buyers realise the danger they might put their families into before signing,” said Chang.

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