As soon as Joanne moved into her brand new townhouse, the problems started (2023)

Every time it rains, the Zhous are on high alert.

They grab buckets, towels and trays to catch the water that inevitably spills from the living room ceiling and through cracks in the window frame in the downstairs bathroom.

The leaks started soon after Joanne and Andrew Zhoumoved into a brand new two-storeytownhouse in Melbourne.

"It was quite obvious that things probably weren't being done in a proper way. And that's when we were getting concerned," Mrs Zhou said.

As soon as Joanne moved into her brand new townhouse, the problems started (1)

Emails and calls to the builder went back and forth for weeks, then months. Now, it's been more than a year.

Mrs Zhou has lost countof how many times the roof has been patched by the builder in an effort to fix the problem, but it's never stopped the water coming intothe home.

Two sliding doors have also stopped openingall the way, and a fence shared with a neighbouring property is being pushed over because a large water tank wasn't installed properly.

As soon as Joanne moved into her brand new townhouse, the problems started (2)

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The couple commissioned anindependent inspectionof the property earlier this year, which confirmed active leaks in ceilings, cracked waterproofing materials on the roof and leaking sinks and taps, among other issues.

Mrs Zhou said a separate roof specialist who had examined the property hadtold her there were signs mould may be growing in the roof.

"Who knows what's going to happen next week or next month? I just wish it was done properly to start with," Mrs Zhou said.

As soon as Joanne moved into her brand new townhouse, the problems started (3)

Review finds 'fragmented' building regulation leading to 'unsafe homes'

Housing issues, like those faced in the Zhou home, are not uncommon in Victoria.

An internal government review, yet to be publicly released but sighted by the ABC, paints a pictureofsystemic failures in communication and a "fragmented" approach to regulation in Victoria's building sector,leading in some cases to unsafe buildings and costing the industrybillions.

The stage one report on the Victorian government's three-stage building system review was handed down to the state planning minister in September 2021.

A panel, chaired by Commissioner for Better Regulation Anna Cronin, scrutinised the building regulatory system and found the review was "well overdue" and "absolutely necessary"to strengthen safeguards.

The government committed to "implement significant changes" in 2021 but it's understood none of the reforms were actioned that year.

When asked detailed questions by the ABC, spokesperson for the planning minister Lizzie Blandthorn said the government was delivering "the most comprehensive review ever undertaken into Victoria's building system", involving experts from Victoria and around the world.

The ABC understands a briefing on the stage two report was handed to the government in the first half of this year.The third and final report isdue to be handed down next yearand the current government hadcommitted to a new building act in 2023.

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A system based on luck

As soon as Joanne moved into her brand new townhouse, the problems started (4)

Paulo Vaz Serra is a senior lecturer in construction management at the University of Melbourne and said Victoria's building system was self-regulated with a lack of protection for final buyersand was defined by "uncertainty".

"It's a system that doesn't look at what was designed and check what was actually built. [Those two things] don't have to match up," he said.

Dr Vaz Serra said the final construction of a building, did not have to match what was originally designed, it just had to align with minimum standards.

"It's a lottery," he said.

"You have excellent builders who are competent and each time they make a decision they check with architects and engineers to make sure things are being done properly, but they don't need to."

It meanscurrently, consumers moving into new houses or apartments have to trust all the processes were done correctly throughout the build.

Recommendations to 'fundamentally reshape the regulatory landscape'

The panel's stage one report included 16 recommendations thatit said had"the potential to fundamentally reshape the regulatory landscape in Victoria", some of which were meant to be implemented last year.

The panel found:

  • A lack of oversight and training of practitioners such as builders, plumbers, architects, and surveyors, meant unsafe houses and apartments were being built
  • There was little oversight of those installing safety measures in apartments such as smoke alarms, fire extinguishers, and sprinkler systems
  • Poor documentation meant there were "difficulties" in knowing whether a building's safety measures were up to scratch

The government's Building, Planning and Heritage Legislation Amendment Bill 2022 was introduced to parliament earlier this year.

The bill aimed to implement some of the panel's recommendations to remove barriers to information sharing that exist in legislation, and make the State Building Surveyor a statutory role.

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But because it did not pass before parliament was dissolved, the bill was void.

A large part of the panel's firstreportfocused on home owner power and knowledge.

It found:

  • A "siloed" approach to regulation that significantly hindered the ability of departments and associations to share information
  • Unresolved conflicts between buildersand consumers were costing the sector $3.5 billion a year
  • Home owners building a house or renovating were often caught off-guard by high costs and, due to a lack of available "transparent, trusted information" about practitioner credentials and experience, may select practitioners "based purely on price"

Consumers kept in the dark

The panel consistently heard two issues —a lack of information sharing across departments and associations and poor quality documentation — should be addressed as a matter of urgency.

Information sharing was described as "sporadic and ad hoc", with agencies not able to share information to help consumers and keep practitioners accountable due to strict rules around privacy, and because some information was not collected at all.

The stage one report stated the government was unaware of the full "magnitude and type of building defects" in the state due to poor information sharing, something the panel said needed to be urgently addressedlast year.

It recommended removinglegislativebarriers to information sharing so agencies such as the VBA could share information about defects, poor construction, and non-compliant builders and practitioners with other agencies.

The panel also recommended a Commissioner for Building Consumers that could analyse and report on issues affecting home owners.

Leaked briefing says people living in 'unsafe dwellings'

A leaked ministerial briefing to Planning Minister Lizzie Blandthorn said all of the expert panel's stage one recommendations were endorsed by the government last year.

The briefing stated a budget bid to support 13 of the 16 recommendations in the 2022-23 financial year was rejected, but $25 million was secured over two years for the VBA and Department of Environment Land, Water, and Planning to implement four changes.

The briefing also stated Victoria's building regulatory system had led to the construction of "sub-standard and unsafe dwellings", leaving home owners with limited power to have defects and structural issues fixed.

The briefing stated this not only left home owners significantly out of pocket but meant some people "continue to live in unsafe buildings".

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Advocates say industry is at 'crisis point'

Dr Vaz Serra's colleague at theat the University of Melbourne, Andrew Martel, said the building industry was complex and expensive, so any changes would always be tricky.

"You could have a system where a building surveyor was assigned to a building site, and was there full time and watched everything go in place, and documented that. But that system is a very expensive system," Mr Martel said.

But he agreed the consequences of not changing the regulatory and legislative system were high for home owners, and low for practitioners.

"What are the personal consequences for doing a poor job? Very, very few… but if [the system] doesn't work properly, then you are letting down the buying public who have an assumption when they walk into the house, that the fundamentals of that house have been done properly," he said.

As soon as Joanne moved into her brand new townhouse, the problems started (5)

Australian Apartment Advocacy director Samantha Reece said the report made it clear Victoria's building regulatory system was "at a crisis point".

She said the government report should be made public so consumers were aware of the risks they were facing if they chose to renovate their homes or buy off the plan.

"We have seen situations where people have become so distressed with the defects and the lack of action from government that they have actually taken their lives," Ms Reece said.

"It leaves a whole question about where is that consumer protection."

Posted, updated


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